SAT Essay Scores Explained

By March 11, 2019 January 19th, 2021 SAT

On January 19th, 2021, College Board announced that they will no longer administer the SAT Subject Tests in the U.S. and that the Essay would be retired. Read our blog post to understand what this means in the near term and what the College Board has in store for students down the road.

Our articles on Subject Tests and the SAT Essay will remain on our site for reference purposes as colleges and students transition to a revised testing landscape.

SAT Essay scores for the new SAT are confusing to interpret, in part, because the College Board has intentionally given them little context. By combining College Board and student data, Compass has produced a way for students to judge essay performance, and we answer many of the common questions about the essay.

Why are there no percentiles for the essay on an SAT score report?

No percentiles or norms are provided in student reports. Even colleges do not receive any summary statistics. Given Compass’ concerns about the inaccuracy of essay scoring and the notable failures of the ACT on that front, the de-emphasis of norms would seem to be a good thing. The problem is that 10% of colleges are sticking with the SAT Essay as an admission requirement. While those colleges will not receive score distribution reports from the College Board, it is not difficult for them to construct their own statistics—officially or unofficially—based on thousands of applicants. Colleges can determine a “good score,” but students cannot. This asymmetry of information is harmful to students, as they are left to speculate how well they have performed and how their scores will be interpreted. Through our analysis, Compass hopes to provide students and parents more context for evaluating SAT Essay scores.

How has scoring changed? Is it still part of a student’s Total Score?

On the old SAT, the essay was a required component of the Writing section and made up approximately one-third of a student’s 200–800 score. The essay score itself was simply the sum (2–12) of two readers’ 1–6 scores. Readers were expected to grade holistically and not to focus on individual components of the writing. The SAT essay came under a great deal of criticism for being too loosely structured. Factual accuracy was not required; it was not that difficult to make pre-fabricated material fit the prompt; many colleges found the 2–12 essay scores of little use; and the conflation of the essay and “Writing” was, in some cases, blocking the use of the SAT Writing score—which included grammar and usage—entirely.

With the 2016 overhaul of the SAT came an attempt to make the essay more academically defensible while also making it optional (as the ACT essay had long been). The essay score is not a part of the 400–1600 score. Instead, a student opting to take the SAT Essay receives 2–8 scores in three dimensions: reading, analysis, and writing. No equating or fancy lookup table is involved. The scores are simply the sum of two readers’ 1–4 ratings in each dimension. There is no official totaling or averaging of scores, although colleges may choose to do so.

Readers avoid extremes

What is almost universally true about grading of standardized test essays is that readers gravitate to the middle of the scale. The default instinct is to nudge a score above or below a perceived cutoff or midpoint rather than to evenly distribute scores. When the only options are 1, 2, 3, or 4, the consequence is predictable—readers give out a lot of 2s and 3s and very few 1s and 4s. In fact, our analysis shows that 80% of all reader scores are 2s or 3s. This, in turn, means that most of the dimension scores (the sum of the two readers) range from 4 to 6. Analysis scores are outliers. A third of readers give essays a 1 in Analysis. Below is the distribution of reader scores across all dimensions.

What is a good SAT Essay score?

By combining multiple data sources—including extensive College Board scoring information—Compass has estimated the mean and mode (most common) essay scores for students at various score levels. We also found that the reading and writing dimensions were similar, while analysis scores lagged by a point across all sub-groups. These figures should not be viewed as cutoffs for “good” scores. The loose correlation of essay score to Total Score and the high standard deviation of essay scores means that students at all levels see wide variation of scores. The average essay-taking student scores a 1,080 on the SAT and receives just under a 5/4/5.

We would advise students to use these results only as broad benchmarks. It would not be at all unusual to score a point below these means. Scores that are consistently 2 or more points below the means may be more of a concern.

College Board recently released essay results for the class of 2017, so score distributions are now available. From these, percentiles can also be calculated. We provide these figures with mixed feelings. On the one hand, percentile scores on such an imperfect measure can be highly misleading. On the other hand, we feel that students should understand the full workings of essay scores.

The role of luck

What is frustrating to many students on the SAT and ACT is that they can score 98th percentile in most areas and then get a “middling” score on the essay. This result is actually quite predictable. Whereas math and verbal scores are the result of dozens of objective questions, the essay is a single question graded subjectively. To replace statistical concepts with a colloquial one—far more “luck” is involved than on the multiple-choice sections. What text is used in the essay stimulus? How well will the student respond to the style and subject matter? Which of the hundreds of readers were assigned to grade the student’s essay? What other essays has the reader recently scored?

Even good writers run into the unpredictability involved and the fact that essay readers give so few high scores. A 5 means that the Readers A and B gave the essay a 2 and a 3, respectively. Which reader was “right?” If the essay had encountered two readers like Reader A, it would have received a 4. If the essay had been given two readers like Reader B, it would have received a 6. That swing makes a large difference if we judge scores exclusively by percentiles, but essay scores are simply too blurry to make such cut-and-dry distinctions. More than 80% of students receive one of three scores—4, 5, or 6 on the reading and writing dimensions and 3, 4, or 5 on analysis.

What do colleges expect?

It’s unlikely that many colleges will release a breakdown of essay scores for admitted students—especially since so few are requiring it. What we know from experience with the ACT, though, is that even at the most competitive schools in the country, the 25th–75th percentile scores of admitted students were 8–10 on the ACT’s old 2–12 score range. We expect that things will play out similarly for the SAT and that most students admitted to highly selective colleges will have domain scores in the 5–7 range (possibly closer to 4–6 for analysis). It’s even less likely for students to average a high score across all three areas than it is to obtain a single high mark. We estimate that only a fraction of a percent of students will average an 8—for example [8/8/8, 7/8/8, 8/7/8, or 8,8,7].

Update as of October 2017. The University of California system has published the 25th–75th percentile ranges for enrolled students. It has chosen to work with total scores. The highest ranges—including those at UCLA and Berkeley—are 17–20. Those scores are inline with our estimates above.

How will colleges use the domain scores?

Colleges have been given no guidance by College Board on how to use essay scores for admission. Will they sum the scores? Will they average them? Will they value certain areas over others? Chances are that if you are worrying too much about those questions, then you are likely losing sight of the bigger picture. We know of no cases where admission committees will make formulaic use of essay scores. The scores are a very small, very error-prone part of a student’s testing portfolio.

How low is too low?

Are 3s and 4s, then, low enough that an otherwise high-scoring student should retest? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to that question. In general, it is a mistake to retest solely to improve an essay score unless a student is confident that the SAT Total Score can be maintained or improved. A student with a 1340 PSAT and 1280 SAT may feel that it is worthwhile to bring up low essay scores because she has previously shown that she can do better on the Evidence-based Reading and Writing and Math, as well. A student with a 1400 PSAT and 1540 SAT should think long and hard before committing to a retest. Admission results from the class of 2017 may give us some added insight into the use of SAT Essay scores.

Will colleges continue to require the SAT Essay?

For the class of 2017, Compass has prepared a list of the SAT Essay and ACT Writing policies for 360 of the top colleges. Several of the largest and most prestigious public university systems—California, Michigan, and Texas, for example, still require the essay, and a number of highly competitive private colleges do the same—for example, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.

The number of excellent colleges not requiring the SAT Essay, though, is long and getting longer. Compass expects even more colleges to drop the essay requirement for the classes of 2018 and 2019. Policies are typically finalized in late spring or during the summer.

Should I skip the essay entirely?

A common question regarding SAT scores is whether the whole mess can be avoided by skipping the essay. After all, if only about 10% of colleges are requiring the section, is it really that important? Despite serious misgivings about the test and the ways scores are interpreted, Compass still recommends that most students take the essay unless they are certain that they will not be applying to any of the colleges requiring or recommending it. Nationally, about 70% of students choose to take the essay on at least one SAT administration. When looking at higher scoring segments, that quickly rises to 85–90%. Almost all Compass students take the SAT Essay at least once to insure that they do not miss out on educational opportunities.

Should I prepare for the SAT Essay?

Most Compass students decide to do some preparation for the essay, because taking any part of a test “cold” can be an unpleasant experience, and students want to avoid feeling like a retake is necessary. In addition to practicing exercises and tests, most students can perform well enough on the SAT Essay after 1–2 hours of tutoring. Students taking a Compass practice SAT will also receive a scored essay. Students interested in essay writing tips for the SAT can refer to Compass blog posts on the difference between the ACT and SAT tasks and the use of first person on the essays.

Will I be able to see my essay?

Yes. ACT makes it difficult to obtain a copy of your Writing essay, but College Board includes it as part of your online report.

Will colleges have access to my essay? Even if they don’t require it?

Yes, colleges are provided with student essays. We know of very few circumstances where SAT Essay reading is regularly conducted. Colleges that do not require the SAT Essay fall into the “consider” and “do not consider” camps. Schools do not always list this policy on their website or in their application materials, so it is hard to have a comprehensive list. We recommend contacting colleges for more information. In general, the essay will have little to no impact at colleges that do not require or recommend it.

Is the SAT Essay a reason to take the ACT instead?

Almost all colleges that require the SAT Essay require Writing for ACT-takers. The essays are very different on the two tests, but neither can be said to be universally “easier” or “harder.” Compass recommends that the primary sections of the tests determine your planning. Compass’ content experts have also written a piece on how to attack the ACT essay.

Key links in this post:

ACT and SAT essay requirements
ACT Writing scores explained
Comparing ACT and SAT essay tasks
The use of first person in ACT and SAT essays
Understanding the “audience and purpose” of the ACT essay
Compass proctored practice testing for the ACT, SAT, and Subject Tests

Art Sawyer

About Art Sawyer

Art graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was the top-ranked liberal arts student in his class. Art pioneered the one-on-one approach to test prep in California in 1989 and co-founded Compass Education Group in 2004 in order to bring the best ideas and tutors into students' homes and computers. Although he has attained perfect scores on all flavors of the SAT and ACT, he is routinely beaten in backgammon.


  • Zoe says:

    Hi! I’m a current junior and got a 1600 and a 4, 3, 6 (13 total) on the SAT. I was wondering if I should retake it or not because of the really low essay score. It was my first time taking the test, but I’m not sure if I could get a 1600 again.

    Thank you so much!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I would concentrate more on your class grades and your application essays. Colleges have realized the the essay does little to help them, and it is increasingly irrelevant.

  • Noah says:

    Hello Art,

    I am a sophomore. I took the SAT in October, and got a 1520 (720 EBRW, 800 Math) which I was thrilled about. However, I scored a 5/3/6 on the essay.

    I was planning on taking the SAT again in the future anyways, but when I do, do you suggest I take the essay again in hopes of getting an improve score, or should I take it the next time without the essay?


    • Art Sawyer says:

      The Essay in on the verge of being irrelevant and will likely be completely irrelevant by the time you apply to college. I would not recommend bothering with it again. And your cumulative score of 14 is not that concerning. Congratulations on the 1520 as a sophomore!

  • karen says:

    My student is a senior. She has two SAT scores of 1370 (730 ERW / 640 Math) and 1400 (720 ERW / 680 Math). The challenge is both times she has scored atrociously on the essays (4/4/5 & 4/2/4) . She did fine on AP test for English Lang/Comp with a score of 4. Time is running short – what next? She was signed up for a third SAT/Essay but not sure that’s a good idea. She plans to take ACT in Dec. Has a competitive STEM internship under her belt, volunteer coaching and other volunteer hours, varsity soccer and baseball (yes, baseball and she is a female 😉 people often think I misspeak that), and did get Commended Scholar . What would you recommend for retesting SAT in hopes of doing better on essay score? Or just putting effort into doing much better on the ACT? What about subject tests? Once upon a time she thought about more elite schools, but has lowered her sights.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The first question to ask is “Where is she applying that the essay will matter?” It is increasingly irrelevant and only required at the University of California and West Point. It’s true that it is recommended at other colleges, and there is also no way of suppressing the reporting of the score. But it’s unlikely to be a tip factor. And most colleges will simply ignore it! The 4/4/5 is below where the typical 1350-1400 scorer is, but I wouldn’t call it atrocious. Unless she is applying to a school requiring the essay, I would recommend any retakes (or ACTs) be without the essay. It doesn’t seem to be her strength, and it’s no big deal if she skips it. Fitting in both an SAT and an ACT is asking a lot, but I don’t think it is a bad idea if it can work for her schedule. A practice ACT — on a real, released test — would give you a better sense if she is likely to improve her profile with an official ACT. Score Choice is an option at almost all colleges (but you should check!), so an additional SAT score is not going to hurt her. I would not let her essay score impact her application plans. Unless she is applying to programs that require Subject Tests, I would focus on her primary scores. Getting those squared away can help her everywhere.

  • Elena says:

    I am an international student and I scored 1430 on the SAT (690 on EBRW and 740 on the Math section) and got a 6/4/6 on the the Essay section . I am planning to apply to a few Ivy-leauge colleges and some of the UC’s and therefore I will also retake the Test in December. But is my score at the moment generally high enough for admission at one of those schools? What score would give me a decent chance of admission, despite not having any national recognitions or special extracurricular activities?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Your Essay score is fine. I would put more emphasis on your ERW and Math scores. You can take a look at our Compass 360 page to get a better sense of where your scores fall. At some UC campuses, your scores would fall at the upper end of the range for enrolled students. In other cases they would be in the middle or somewhat below average. At the Ivies, you’ll want to have higher scores. The standards for international students can be high.

  • Scott F says:

    Hi –

    You do a great job on this forum – one of the best I’ve seen! You’ve mostly answered my question in other parts of this thread, but I wanted to check based on our particulars. My son, a junior at a CA high school took his SAT for the first time this month (October 5) and scored 1550 (770/780) and Essay of 5|4|5 (14 total). He’s likely to apply to some Ivys and UC Berkeley/LA (where 25-75th percentile on Essay is 16-20)…so he’s below 25th percentile. He didn’t prepare enough on essay and have outside reviewers – and is willing/eager to retake. However, downside risk is that his composite score drops (he did much better on actual test than practice tests). Since UCs only take best sitting, what test would they take in a hypothetical scenario where his second test score composite lower, say 1450 and an Essay total of say, 18? Also, on a related note – where the essay is not a requirement for the school (many Ivys now), does that mean it’s not considered at all for admission…even though they receive the score?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      There is a strong chance that the UC’s will announce the end of the Essay requirement this year. It is required almost nowhere else at this point. On the other hand, the downside risk of retesting is minimal. I would normally advise a student with 1550 not to retest. I see students eager to retest, and I’m supportive of them when they make that decision. The UC’s do not superscore even with the essay, so the 18 would be ignored in your scenario. But — and it’s an important but — it likely won’t matter at all.

  • Andrew says:

    Hey Mr. Sawyer!

    Just out of curiosity, would you recommend retaking the SAT? I’m an international student (in Toronto, born and raised) in grade 11 and I had a composite score of 1540 with a 6/6/7 essay score, but I’m not really feeling a retest. I’d be targeting Stanford as my top choice, but also the rest of HYPMS too … do you think it’d significantly increase my chances? Thanks in advance :))

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I don’t believe in quantifying the improved chances for improvement given how many factors play a role in admission. Your essay score is excellent, so that is not a factor. Do I think that getting a 1590 can be better than a 1540? Yes. Do I thing it will “significantly increase” your chances? No. And that’s assuming that you can achieve a higher score. Much of it is about your own motivation. You still have plenty of time to study and retest.

  • ConcernedParent says:

    I think I know the answer to this based on your responses to other posters but to put my mind at rest I thought I would ask for my benefit and for the benefit of others who may find themselves in similar shoes. My junior daughter took both the ACT with Writing and SAT with Essay. She did some self-study prep but aside from reading the essay tips did not do complete practice essays. She is an “A” student in high school English class, got a 4 on the AP English Language as a Sophomore and will take the AP English Lit as a Junior. She scored an ACT composite 35 (35E/34M/36R/35S) with a 10/12 on the essay. She then took the SAT and got 1570 (780 ERW/ 790 M) BUT scored a 15/24 on the essay (4/5/6). She is planning on applying to IVY/Elite schools for Engineering. Should she not report the SAT because of the barely above average essay score or report it all and hope that an AO will view the 15/24 as the anomaly it is as it relates to her writing ability? Should she take the SAT with Essay again (would not be her preference)? Do something else? Many thanks for your guidance.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The ACT and SAT essays are dying off, but it would be wonderful if they would just hurry it up. It would be a mistake to let your daughter’s 15 dissuade her from sending her SAT score. And, no, she should not retest. Given the strength of a 35 composite, your daughter could submit both her ACT and SAT scores. The 10/12 should put to rest any concern about the SAT Essay score.

      • SANJAY says:

        Hi Art,

        I am from INDIA ,I recently took the Oct SAT and received a 1530 (800 math, 730 reading and writing) which I was happy about. However, my happiness ended when I saw that my essay score was 6-4-6. Should I retake the SAT?

        Also, I’m planning on applying to the top colleges like Stanford, ivies, and the ucs, do you think my 6-4-6 will DAMPEN admissions? My parents think that it will because most students applying to these colleges will have a high score like I do and a low essay score may lead to a rejection. Kindly advice?

        • Art Sawyer says:

          A 6-4-6 is not an unusual score, even for competitive colleges. The essay is being phased out at many schools, so it becomes even less and less important every year. I would not recommend a retest based on the Essay score.

  • G says:

    I’ve basically gleaned enough information from skimming the comments to answer my own questions, but I wanted to say that it’s impressive how well you answered everyone else’s. Of course, given your job it makes sense, but it’s nice that you gave the advice for free, and I hope you’re getting paid well.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Thank you for the kind words. At Compass, we like to think of ourselves as the experts in testing and test prep. Answering questions gives us insight that we might otherwise miss.

  • Samara says:

    Hi Art,

    Question regarding what I believe is a unique situation. My son took the SATs at age 12 for a talent search (CTY). This was prior to him ever taking algebra, and therefore, we knew from the start that he would need to retake them in high school. We did opt to keep his scores in his record with the college board. He scored a 730 on verbal and 590 on math. He actually wanted to try the essay, and much to our surprise, he got 7/6/8. When he retakes the SAT, I was thinking he should NOT redo the essay, because if anything, it seems to be a fair chance his score could drop. Would you agree, or am I not thinking about this the right way?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      You don’t mention his current age. There is a decent chance that the SAT Essay will be dead by the time he applies. I would go ahead and have him retest with the essay unless it has disappeared. Some schools will not use his early scores. And, honestly, given his scores at age 12, I can’t imagine that the SAT Essay — or the SAT at all — is going to be an obstacle.

      • Samara says:

        Thank you very much for the input! He recently turned 14 and is about to start 9th grade. Interesting to hear that the essay may be gone by the time he takes it.

        • Art Sawyer says:

          In addition to the University of California system, there are only a handful — and not a full handful — of schools still requiring the essay. It’s recommended by some of the most competitive colleges, but the essay’s influence shrinks every year.

  • Devmika says:

    I took the SAT in March this year, and I got a 1410 (Math-730, Reading/ Writing- 680). My essay score was a 6/5/6. I am planning on retaking the SAT again, but should I also retake the essay?
    Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Your essay score is fine for most schools and is inline with your SAT scores. I don’t know if you are applying to schools that require the essay. I hate doing it, but I usually recommend that students retake the essay. Since it comes at the end, it shouldn’t impact your SAT score. Having two full tests gives you the most flexibility.

  • Kitt says:

    I took the June SAT with essay and got a 1430 (700 RW and 730 Math), as well as a 7/6/7 on the essay portion. I went in without any prep, so I am going to take the August SAT. I am happy with the essay score, so if I take it without the essay in August, is that acceptable for UC applications? (I am targeting UC Berkeley.) I am unsure if the SAT and essay scores that I submit need to be from the same date. Ideally, I would score higher on the August exam, and submit that score with my June essay score, but I don’t really know if that’s OK for UC applications.
    Thank you.

  • Al says:

    Our son scored a 1500 on his SAT (780 Math/720 English) and a 4-4-4 on his essay. Shortly after he received his scores, the only school he plans to apply to that required an essay reversed policy and no longer requires it.
    He took the ACT afterwards and scored a 35 (36 English/32 Math/36 Reading/36 Science).
    My questions regard submitting scores to colleges during the application process. If not required to do otherwise, should he only submit the (better) ACT score, in order to avoid submitting the SAT essay 4-4-4? – or- Would he be better off submitting both in order to send the SAT with the 780 Math?
    He would prefer not to test again. He is applying to East Coast schools.
    Thank you.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Even apart from the issue with the essay score, I don’t see any reason for your son to submit his 1500. His 35 is definitely the stronger score. Yes, his 780 Math is a bit better than his 32 on the ACT, but superscoring is not done across tests. And his 36s more than make up for it.

  • Steph says:

    Hi Art,

    My son, a junior, took the SAT in March and scored 1500 (M: 720; EBRW: 780) but was disappointed to receive a 6-4-6 on the essay. We are in California, and he is eager to apply to UC schools, including Berkeley and UCLA. Would you recommend he retake it to get the essay score up? Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The 25th-75th percentile range at Berkeley was 16-20 on the Essay, so your son’s Essay score is within range. The Essay plays a small enough role that I would not let it drive his testing decisions. If his primary focus is on the UCs, keep in mind that they will consider his highest scores from a single administration. So if he decides to retest and does worse, it will not hurt his chances. Unfortunately, the UCs don’t superscore.

  • Mickey says:

    Hello Mr. Art, I finished my SAT in my 10th grade and got a score of 1590 and an essay score of 15. Eventhough I was not planning to retake it, my school has a graduation requirement to take the SAT in April for all juniors. I was planning to cancel the score as i was happy with my initial score but after the test I feel i should not cancel as I did very well in the essay this year and should defenitely score around 1550. Is it okay for the SAT score to go down a little and essay to go up. Do you think I am making the right choice by not cancelling it?
    Thank you.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Sorry if this didn’t reach you in time. I would not cancel. Most colleges now allow Score Choice, so it’s better to actually know your scores. If you thought you scored a 1400, my advice would be different, but a 1590 / 1550 test transcript is not going to hurt you.

  • Argy says:

    Hello Art!

    I took the SAT on March 9th, scored 1490 and 5/4/6 on the essay. I’m an international student applying to top-tier universities (Harvard, Princeton, MIT etc). I have a strong CV, with national and international awards at science Olympiads (among other things). I’m afraid my essay score may weaken my chances of admission, especially in comparison to the scores of native speaking applicants. Do you think I should retake, mainly to boost my essay score?

    Thank you in advance

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I would recommend retaking the exam — but not just because of your essay score. Even at an excellent 1490 your score falls just at or below the average SAT scores for the colleges you mention. As you probably know, admission can be particularly competitive for international students.

      • Argy says:

        Ok Thanks!
        Do you think I have enough time to improve untill May’s exam, or should I wait for October to retake? (I’m in the 11th grade now, and I was hoping to apply EA)

        • Art Sawyer says:

          It doesn’t need to be either/or. You could see how you do in May and then decide if October is even necessary. October results are usually acceptable for EA, but it’s best not to count on it, as delays can happen.

  • Adam says:

    Hi Art,
    I am currently a Junior and scored a 760-800 composite 1560 and 4/4/6 essay on my SAT. I am an A minus-A student at a very highly rated and competitive High School. English is typically one of my best subjects alongside History, and I am taking AP Language and Composition this year with a weighted A+ average. English is typically my best subject and I am taking AP Language and Composition this year with a weighted 99 average. My top choices in terms of college are Penn-Wharton, Duke, U-Chicago, Harvard, Yale, Northwestern, U-Mich, WashU, and Columbia. Would it be worth it for me to retake the test in order to get a higher EBRW and Would it be worth it for me to retake the test in order to get a higher EBRW and Essay Score?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Generally I tell students not to worry once their scores are at least in the teens. I have no doubt that you can improve. The question then becomes, is it worth it and how much do you want it. Many of the schools on your list superscore or accept Score Choice, so dropping from a 1560 would not hurt you. Yale, though, is an example of a college that wants all scores. So a retest is not without its risks. Improving a 1560 is not easy to do, and I only recommend it if a student feels really motivated. It’s already fairly late into the spring. You might want to consider the August SAT date. I’d make sure that you have Subject Test scores in place, first. Even though they are only recommended at many colleges, they can help improve your testing portfolio.

  • Sophia says:

    Hi Art,

    I recently took the March SAT and received a 1570 (800 math, 770 reading and writing) which I was extremely happy about. However, my happiness ended when I saw that my essay score was 6-5-6. I thought this was extremely surprising considering my score from the August SAT was 6-6-6 and that was before I started taking APLang at my high school. I already registered for the May SAT after my August test and my dad wants me to take it to improve my essay score but I really have no interest in retaking especially because it’s during AP testing. I also didn’t study much for the March SAT and am scared that my May score may be worse than the 1570 (I’m not planning on studying much for it). Should I retake?

    Also, I’m planning on applying to the top colleges like Stanford, ivies, and the ucs, do you think my 6-5-6 will play a large role in admissions? My dad thinks that it will because most students applying to these colleges will have a high score like I do and a low essay score may lead to a rejection. Do you think this is true?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I would not recommend that you retake the test. A 6-5-6 should not disadvantage you versus other applicants. There has to be something very unusual about an essay score for it to play a role, and your 6-5-6 is not that unusual. It’s a lot of pressure to try to match or improve a 1570. Score Choice and superscoring are common enough that some of the stress is reduced, but your AP results and Subject Tests — if you are planning on them — would be more important.

  • Kelly says:

    For my scores in SAT it was 920 total, 460 for each but, by essay scores were 6-5-6 should I take the test again?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Your essay scores are excellent, and I don’t think that they should play a role in your decision. I would recommend looking at the SAT scores at colleges you are interested in to see how your 920 stacks up.

  • Jenna says:

    Hi Art,

    I am a junior who just got their SAT scores back; I got a 1310, of which I am proud of, but I did not score as well as I would have liked on the essay. I received a 6/3/6, and I would have liked to get at least a 5 on the analysis part. I am in AP level writing classes and I thought I would do better. I am worried that the essay score might affect my chances at certain colleges (mainly UNC Chapel Hill and Boston College, neither of which require the essay), so do you think it is necessary to retake the essay? I am not sure if it is better to try and improve my essay score or just leave it as it is.


    • Art Sawyer says:

      I would be proud of both your scores. Sometimes the analysis is an odd outlier. I would, however, consider retaking the SAT. Your 1310 is in the 25th-75th percentile range of a college such as BC, but it’s just a bit below the midpoint. Getting that higher would help even more than would an essay improvement.

  • Carol says:

    Hi Art,

    I am a junior and I took the SAT in March, getting a score of 1500. I also took the essay but somehow ended up with a 2/4/6, which is very odd considering that a high reading score is the easiest to get. I am planning to apply to the UC’s and other schools, so should I retake the SAT’s again to improve my essay score? And is there an option to not send my first essay score to colleges?

    Thank you!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      As you have probably read, I almost never recommend retesting due to an essay score. Your case is a little unique because (a) your score is unusual and (b) you are applying to the UC’s. I would recommend retesting — the UC’s will take your highest score. There is not an option to hide your essay score unless you use Score Choice and choose not to send your first score at all.

  • Jessica says:

    Hi Art,

    My son is a junior and just took the SAT in March the first time. He got a score of 1560 (790, 770). However, his essay score was only (6,3,6). We are aiming for some good schools such as Georgia Tech, UPenn, etc. I’m really worried about his low essay score. May I ask your advice whether we should retake the SAT? If so, should we take it without the essay?

    Thank you so much for your advice!


    • Art Sawyer says:

      My rule of thumb is that a student scoring in the teens should not retest unless there are other reasons, such as a desire to raise a section score. Interesting that you should mention GA Tech, as its policy is now to not even look at the Essay score! The essay is simply not that important at most colleges.

  • Aly says:

    Hi! I just received my SAT scores from the March 9th test date, and I am a little disappointed with my SAT essay score of 5-5-6 (especially the 5 in reading). Is it worth it to retake the essay?

  • Jenna says:


    I am a junior who just got their SAT scores back; I got a 1310 for my composite score, of which I am proud of, but my essay score was a 6/3/6. I thought that I did well on the essay and I was confident going into it. I am in AP level English classes, and writing is one of my strong suits, but I think that the timing of the essay affected my score. I am worried that this might negatively impact my college admissions. I am planning on taking the June SAT to try and improve my composite score, and I am wondering if should I retake the essay as well. (None of the colleges I am applying to require the essay)

    Thank you.

  • Catherine says:

    Hello, Art,

    My son is indeed a gifted writer and won our state writing contest. He took SAT on March 9, 2019, and we just got his score back. He got 1580 on his SAT. He took the essay, but somehow, he also got the experimental section, which prolonged the entire test. He said that he could not finish his essay with badly needed going to the bathroom:). So his essay was 6, 4, 8, which was very disappointing to him. I want to ask your opinion if he shall retake the SAT. I am bit concerned given 1580 is a pretty decent score, and retake may not improve the score, although he may get a higher essay score. Does SAT essay score really matter?
    Thanks for your advice!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      It’s unfortunate that College Board has decided to prolong things even for students taking the Essay. Those students had originally been exempt from an experimental. Your son should not repeat. We are pretty much down to the UC’s and West Point as colleges requiring the essay, and I’m not sure that even those will still be standing in a year. What’s more, the 6, 4, 8 (18) is not that unusual for a 1580 scorer. I’m sure that it is personally disappointing to your son, but it won’t play a role in his admission. His application essays and his award will reflect his skills far more accurately than the SAT.

  • Harry says:

    Hi Art,
    I am a Junior planning on taking the SAT march 9th (so in one week). Although anything can happen, on practice SATs from prepsholar I have been scoring in the 1550-70 range. I believe I am a good writer, but I have no real frame of reference as to whether my writing will lead to a good essay score for the SAT, and I’m worried that if I take the SAT and do well on the main part, but do poorly on the essay, I’ll have to retake it. Do you have any suggestions as to whether I should take the risk of doing the essay or not?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Few colleges require the essay. The University of California system and the United States Military Academy may stick with it for a little while longer. That said, several prominent colleges still recommend the essay, and I usually still recommend taking it. You would have to do pretty poorly to actually damage your chances of admission. Have your tried the automated Khan Academy essay scorer? While it’s not human scored, it would give you some feedback before Saturday. On the old SAT essay, a good writer could wing it and do well. The current essay requires a bit more thought and structure.

  • Jessica says:

    Hi, I am an international student and I took the sat last year when I was in grade 10. I did receive a decent composite score(1570) but my essay score was a 6-6-7. I still thought it was ok until my teachers told me that the essay score should be improved, and now I am considering retaking the test. Should I?

    Also, my handwriting is extremely terrible & disorganized & crude and it would be embarrassing, to say the least. I didnt know that colleges would be able to see my ACTUAL essay and not just the score!!! Especially since I was under time attack my handwriting was even worse, and now I fear that my messy essay itself would be a great disadvantage, let alone the score.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      You should not retake the SAT because of your 6-6-7. That’s an excellent score — especially in 10th grade! Could it be improved? Your teachers presumably think highly of your writing skills, so you might be able to do better on a repeat testing. Will it strengthen your application? No.

      Colleges have more than enough to do without looking up students’ SAT essays. While it is technically possible, I’ve never heard of a college going to the effort unless there is a major discrepancy between SAT scores and the application. For example, if you had a 2-2-2 and an application that read like it came from a prize-winning novelist, it might raise an eyebrow.

      I’ve seen lots of handwriting from admission officers. They won’t judge.

  • Maria says:

    Hi, I’m an international junior aiming for top schools and have just taken the December SAT, receiving a 1530 (770 english, 760 math) and a 4-6-7 on the essay. Should I retake to improve my essay, especially since I got a 4 in one of the sections?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      A 17 total is a good score for the essay. A 6-5-6 is a more common way of getting there, but I haven’t heard of a college caring about the specific split. I don’t think the essay should be a reason for you to retake. If you feel that you want to bring up your 1530, then go for it, but don’t retest just because of your 4.

  • Kay says:

    I took December Sat with Essay as a junior and scored a 560 RW 600 M 6-3-6 on essay. I am taking a SAT Prep course in advance of 3/9/19 testing. Should I retake essay portion? I see where these essay tests are not required but recommended for college admissions. Do I have to send essay scores if I take essay portion? I am being recruited by FSU, UGA, Ga Tech, Penn State and Duke for springboard diving. I know my test scores are low for Duke and Georgia Tech, but I am hoping I can improve.

    • Ash Kramer says:

      Of your list of schools, only Duke and GA Tech recommend the SAT essay. None of these schools require it. When you decide to send scores, the entire score will be sent—you can’t exclude only the essay.

      Both Duke and Georgia Tech superscore (technically, Duke looks at your highest section scores but doesn’t create a new total “superscore”), which means that taking the essay again won’t hurt you. If your score is lower, they’ll look a the earlier, higher one.

      You certainly don’t need to retake the essay for admissions purposes, but if you feel that your essay scores will improve, retaking it can only help you.

  • Isabella says:

    Hello! Im in the middle of applying for colleges, but I’m confused as to how to enter in the essay grade. Every application keeps saying I need to enter in a score from 200-800, but the essay scores are three parts. Would you be able to help me?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Do you have an example or two? I’d be curious to take a look. The Common App has a single field that has you add up your three scores to get a 6-24 value (this is not actually what College Board intended, but it is how many colleges deal with the 3 essay domain scores). You are absolutely correct that there is no such thing as a 200-800 Essay score. The only other thing that I can think of is applications still formatted for the old SAT where the Writing/Essay score was 200-800.

  • Maddie says:

    I took the SAT in December for the first time, and I got a 1580 (780RW, 800M) which I’m really happy about. I didn’t prep at all for the essay so my score ended up being a 6-5-7 which I’m slightly worried about considering I was going to apply to some of the UC schools (mostly just Berkley). I’ve seen you encourage others not to retake for the essay, but is my essay score going to hinder my application?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Your essay score will not hinder your application. It’s a fairly typical score for Berkeley admits. Your 1580, of course, is well above typical. You should be very proud.

  • Bhavya says:

    Hi I recently to SAT and I got 6/6/6 in essay, I got score of 1270, ERBW: 490 and MATH: 780, I would like to repeat the SAT, can you advice me whether I should give Essay in next sitting or not.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Sorry for the late reply. As far as I am aware, the only colleges that require an essay with any submitted scores are the UC’s. If you are not planning on applying to a University of California campus, you should be OK skipping the essay on your next sitting. It’s best, of course, to check with individual colleges.

  • Geoff says:

    Dear Art

    My daughter took her first SAT about a year ago and got 1440 (ERW:640, MATH:800, ESSAY:6/6/6). At her next sitting in Oct18, she got 1560 (ERW:770, MATH:790, ESSAY:6/5/6). We are applying to the good schools. As nearly all colleges superscore but don’t require you to send in all SAT scores, should we just use the latest SAT score and send both for a 10 point higher superscore? Technically, 10 point shouldn’t be a big deal but the top schools are so selective and since she has already done them, its a matter of choosing what to submit. Your response is greatly appreciated.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      In your daughter’s case, I would only send the Oct 2018 scores. Sure, it would be nice to show an 800 versus a 790, but the practical impact is virtually nil. On the other hand, I think there is a danger in showing the 640. Even colleges that say they superscore sometimes make all scores available to admission officers. If we were talking about 740/800 on her earlier test, I might recommend that you send both scores. But with 640/800, I don’t think it’s advisable.

  • Samith says:

    Thanks, Art. Appreciate the quick response.

    Breakups: 1460 (ERW:670, MAT:790), 1480(ERW:700, MAT:780). She also has Subject SAT Score of 800/800 in Math L2 and 760/800 in Chem >> Clearly 1480 is a more balanced score and Math is her strength, but how important is the Sat Essay score in relation to everything else (SAT Scores, Subject SAT, GPA, Application Essays, LORs etc)? Could she get eliminated or filtered out early if she goes with 4-4-6 SAT Essay score?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The Essay is by far the least important score component. Admission offices are more likely to favor what students are capable of, not their lowest scores. I still believe that sending both scores is the best decision. The Subject Scores will certainly help her testing portfolio. There is no filtering out just because of a 4/4/6.

  • Samith says:

    Hi Art,

    My daughter got a SAT score of 1460 and SAT Essay score of 5-6-6 in the May SAT and got a SAT score of 1480 and SAT Essay score of 4-4-6 in the Dec SAT. She is applying to all the UCs + Stanford + Caltech + USC + Pomona + Occidental for an Undergraduate Program w/ Cognitive Sciences Major. Since UCs don’t have any Super-scoring, we are really confused as to which of the score should she use when applying to the above colleges. My daughter really wants to apply with the 1480 SAT score even though her Essay Scores are lower at 4-4-6. She can’t take any more SATs as she has applied/applying for the Fall-2019 semester. Which of the above 2 scores gives her a better chance?


    • Art Sawyer says:

      If, for some reason, only one score could be submitted, I would probably side with your daughter — although, honestly, those scores are very close. There is no such restriction, though, so I would send them both. Pomona, in fact, requires all scores.

  • Seo Yeun says:

    Hi, I’m an international student and I took the October and December SATs this year. I got 1520 in October and 1550 in December, but my essay score was always a 5/4/6 or a 4/5/6 – 15/24 for each one. I’ve done well in my English classes at school with a full GPA, and I want to apply for the Comparative Media Studies/Writing major in MIT along with other Ivy League universities, but I can’t seem to improve my SAT essay score. I know that many universities don’t require the SAT essay score anymore, but will a 15/24 stand out as a bad score to the universities I’m applying to (especially if I’m applying for a writing-related major) and affect my acceptance to those universities? I’m planning to retake the SAT for one last time in March, but I’m arguing whether to drop the essay or not.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Seo Yeun,
      Not many colleges report essay scores. The closest analogue that does report scores is UC Berkeley. 64% of applicants and 64% of admits have scores in the 15-19 range. While your score is at the lower end of the range, it’s hard to know whether it would be much of a disadvantage. Do you think that you have a better score in you? If you don’t think that you can raise your essay score by several points, I’d recommend skipping the essay. You’d always be able to send in December if you needed to. If you nail the March test, you can decide whether or not to keep the essay under wraps. One argument for sending it would be that you are an international students. Admission officers are keen to understand a student’s ability to succeed in English. Your scores might actually put their minds at ease.

  • Sarah says:

    I got a 1530 on the SAT, but on the essay, I got a 6/6/7. I was wondering if I should retake? I plan on applying to colleges like Rice, Northwestern, Cornell, Emory, etc.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Those are actually excellent essay scores. The typical score for a 1530 student is closer to 6/5/6. Do not retake just to get a higher essay score. In fact, if you repeat the test, I’m not sure that I would even recommend taking the essay again. You’ve already notched a good score.

  • Av says:

    Hi, I took the December SAT and got a 1550 (800 Math, 750 Reading/Writing) , but got a 6/3/6 on the essay. Should I retake the SAT w/ essay? I am planning to apply to some Ivy League colleges, such as Brown, and I think Brown requires the essay. So again, should i retake everything?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The good news is that none of the Ivy League colleges require the essay. In fact, virtually every college and university has dropped the essay requirement outside of the University of California and West Point. I don’t believe that students should retake the SAT simply to improve the essay score. Your 6/3/6 is not all that unusual. The risk of repeating is that your 1550 might go down — especially since you already maxed out your Math score. Depending on where you are applying and their policies on Score Choice and superscoring, that risk may not matter. If you don’t already have excellent Subject Test scores nailed down, I’d look to that as a more productive use of your time.

    • - says:

      Brown doesn’t require the essay anymore.

  • Tiffany says:

    Hello Mr. Art,
    I’m currently a junior in highschool and recent and earned a score of 1490 on the SAT. However, my essay score is 5/2/5 (mostly due to the fact that I was unable to finish my essay). Do you think it is necessary for me to retake the test so that I can improve my essay score in order to apply for UCs such as UC Berkeley or UCSD?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I generally recommend against repeating the SAT just to improve an essay score. Your 5/2/5 would be low for the UCs. Since the UCs will use your highest score, there is no risk if you do decide to re-test.

  • Lucy says:

    I’m a senior applying to colleges right now, and I’m trying to figure out if I should send both my SAT scores or just one. The first time I took it I got a 1370 with a 6-6-7 on the essay. The second time I got a 1520 with a 6-5-6 on the essay. Even though my second score is overall a lot better, I don’t know what to do because I did worse on the essay.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Unless a college requires all scores, send only your 1520. It’s far more impressive, of course, and the 6-5-6 is in line with your overall score. The essay is simply too minor a factor to drive this decision — and, again, your 6-5-6 is just fine as is.

  • John says:

    Hi, Art,
    My son took the October SAT and received 1480 (Math: 800, Reading & Writing: 680). And his essay score was 4-3-5 . He will retake the SAT in December. None of the schools he will apply requires or recommends the SAT Essay.
    Should he take the SAT Essay to improve his Essay scores? Or should he skip the Essay portion in December?

    Just one more thing. Although none of the schools my son will apply requires the SAT Essay, he is applying to a very competitive schools like Stanford and Johns Hopkins along with other top-tiered school like USC, BC, and Pepperdine.
    I am wondering if the low SAT essay scores can reduce the acceptance chance despite that these schools do not require the SAT Essay? So, is it better to retake the SAT essay to improve the chance? Thank you very much.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      While most schools will simply ignore the essay score, there is no guarantee that this will be true in all cases. If he feels that he can do better on the essay, I would include it in December. It’s trickier in your son’s case because he may need to submit his October results to maximize any superscoring. That’s one reason that it would be nice to have a stronger essay score in his portfolio.

  • Oleksii says:

    Hello, I am an international student. I took sat twice. The first time was without an essay and scores were ERW: 640 and M: 790. The other time I tried to take an essay in ERW: 660, but I made two more stupid mistakes in math and got M: 750. In addition, I don’t like my essay 6 – 3 – 6. I also took subject tests Math 2: 800 and Physics: 800. I don’t apply to any colleges that require or recommend an essay. I don’t know which SAT 1 score it is better to send or to send both because I like 660 in ERW, but I absolutely don’t like 750 in math and my essay score (I also don’t know whether my Math 2 will outweigh my bad SAT 1 math score). Which scores do you recommend to send?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      First, you might want to consider which colleges will superscore your results or only consider your highest overall performance. That makes the decision easier, since you can send both scores. Your essay score is not unusual for a student in the 640-660 ERW range, so I wouldn’t base your decision on that. Your scores are not that dissimilar. I’d recommend keeping it simple and sending both. Your Math and Physics scores will be nice additions to your SAT scores. I don’t think any admission officer would question your math ability.

  • Herb says:

    My daughter took the October SAT and has a score of 1180, but her essay was a 6 – 3- 6. We did not realize she would have to send the scores of the essay. She is in range or on the cusp with the 1180 for most of her schools she will apply for. None of the schools require the essay, do you think she should take the SAT without essay again in hopes of equaling her score or better, so she can send scores without the essay. Time will soon is also a factor ?
    Thank you for any advice you can provide.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      There are very few times when I recommend a retest based on an essay score. Your daughter’s case is not one of them. Her 6-3-6 is not unusual for a student in her score range. The most common score is 5-4-5, so she did a bit better in two of the domains and a bit worse in Analysis (where almost everyone struggles somewhat). None of her schools requires the essay, and it is likely that they will not care at all. If she thinks she can and wants to improve upon her 1180, then she should go fo it (without essay). Please don’t have her retest because of the 6-3-6.

  • Jeremiah says:

    Good day…..I just took the SAT with essay for the first time……I had 450 in English and 350 in maths …. With 4-2-4 in essay…..what can I do……do I still need to take another test

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Are there schools you are looking at that require the Essay? Right now your main focus should be on bringing up your ERW and Math scores. I would not even worry about the essay on a retake unless you absolutely must submit one.

  • Riya says:

    I’m a junior who took the October SAT for the first time and got a 1520. My essay scores were 6-6-8. I’m planning to retake it. Is that a good idea?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      If you are thinking about retesting because of the essay score, I would say absolutely not a good idea. Your score is excellent when compared to similar students. If you are thinking that you can raise the 1520, then I would say you are probably right. Few juniors reach their best score by October. Especially at superscoring schools, you should be able to improve if you are motivated to do so.

  • Braxton says:

    I am a 10 year old who got a 950 overall on an SAT practice. 510-Math, 440- Reading&Writing, 2-2-2 essay, P.S, I am horrible at the essays.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      The type of writing required by the SAT Essay is the sort that will develop over time. The SAT is not a test well-designed for 10 year-olds. It sounds like you are already on your way to an excellent performance by the time you apply to college.

  • BK says:

    I am a junior and scored 1570 (770 in reading and writing, and 800 in Math) in October SAT. I scored 5/5/6 (reading/analysis/writing) in Essay. I am aiming for Ivy League Schools. I am worried about my Essay score. Will you suggest retaking the SAT with Essay?

  • Anjana says:

    I am junior with SAT score of 1540. Today I got my essay score of 6-3-6. Should I reconsider taking the SAT again.?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      I don’t think that you should let your essay score drive your decision. If you already achieved a 1540 as a fall junior, though, you may still have room to improve. It seems odd to recommend retesting to a student with such a high score, but it sounds like you have upside potential.

  • Nico S says:

    I’m a junior who just took the SAT for the first time. I scored very well (1580) but my essay scores were considerably lower (6-4-6). I wasn’t planning on taking the SAT again after scoring so well on the first one, but after seeing my essay scores— especially the 4 in analysis— I’m considering taking it again. Are my essay scores a significant enough detriment to my application to justify taking it again, considering I may not score as highly as I already have on the rest of the test?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Do not retest! A 6-4-6 is not that unusual, even for high ERW/M scorers. Fewer and fewer schools even care about the Essay, let alone allow it to color such a strong SAT score. As you probably saw in the post, Analysis scores are usually lower than the other domains. It is not a detriment to your application.

  • max says:

    Since almost all the elite colleges drop the requirement of SAT essay, a lot of potential lower essay writers will not take the sat essay and only the confident essay takers will register sat essay. The essay grader will unconsciously raise the grading bar since no bad essays to balance out the good essay. Since the SAT essay scores were not curved and some very accomplished writers with reasonable preparation got 17-19 in sat essay in the past , this coming August SAT essay grading and final scores will be a challenge one . I registered August SAT because my SAT essay scores is much lower than my real writing level( and comparing my SAT scores). I am afraid that the second SAT essay score can be even lower since the essay score is very subjective.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      For each essay prompt, College Board establishes exemplars for each score level. These serve as reference points for graders that help them avoid the drift that you describe. Your theory is an interesting one, but not one that I would be concerned about. Different test dates have always had different profiles, and graders know how to deal with this. Also, student behavior changes slowly. I don’t expect the number of August essay takers to be much different than the historical numbers. Best of luck on next Saturday.

  • Jani F says:

    My daughter got a 7/7/7 on her essay for the SAT. It seems that this is an excellent score? She wants to take the SAT again (780 English, 710 Math) to get the math score up. Does she have to take the essay again as she is worried the score would go down on such a subjective part if the test. Thank you for your input— we read as many of your informative comments as possible!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      At present, the only colleges that will not accept a score without the essay in that scenario are those in the University of California system. If she needs to keep all of her options open, then she should feel OK about repeating the essay (other than the added time and psychic toll). No college is going to hold a lower essay score against her. She has already proved that she can write an excellent essay. In other words, there is no wrong choice in this case. If she is not looking at the UCs, she can skip the essay.

      • Mona says:


        My son is a junior targeting the UCs and ideally UCLA or UC Berkeley for biology. He took Dec SAT (only sitting) and got 770 math/750 English and 8/5/7 essay. He will likely be at a carrying a 4.3-4.5 UC gpa at application time (10-12, max 8 weighted semesters). He does plan to take subject tests in May or June. Does he need to take another SAT or are his numbers solid? His score was better than expected based on practice tests but he is also only a junior….

        While UCs say they consider only best score if he does not do as well next time I cant help but think it could diminish or question his first result

        • Art Sawyer says:

          When a school says that they will use the highest score, they can generally be trusted. I think his scores are high enough (certainly his essay score is) to put his focus elsewhere, but you might want to check out my other article on “great to good” about how how high scores are becoming more common at institutions such as Berkeley,

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