Is Handwriting Important for the SAT Essay?

Worried about your messy handwriting? It’s tough not to have sloppy handwriting when you’re given only 50 minutes to read a passage, analyze it, and write an essay. How will your handwriting influence your SAT Essay score? Can it cause a lower score? Or even lead to a score of zero? I’ve got the answers along with more SAT Essay advice.

Can You Get a Score of Zero for Messy Handwriting?

It’s not possible to get a score of zero for any reason on the SAT Essay because the lowest score possible is 2. Your essay is graded on a scale of 1-4 by two readers, and then those scores are added together to give you your final essay score. You could get a 2 because of your handwriting, but it needs to very, very messy. Throughout my years of SAT tutoring, I had many students with handwriting I could barely make out who did find on the SAT essay. My PrepScholar colleagues had the same experience while tutoring.

The College Board doesn’t have an official policy on illegible handwriting. However, in their essay grading rubric, the College Board writes that, for a score of 1, the essay shows a weak control of the conventions of standard written English and may contain numerous errors that undermine the quality of writing. Your messy handwriting could be perceived as an error that undermines the quality and ability for the reader to understand our essay.

The reality is that all of your handwriting needs to be considered illegible and for you to receive a score of 1. Is your handwriting so terrible that you pick up something you wrote a few months ago and cannot read a single word? I imagine the answer is no. If your handwriting is messy but still legible, you will not automatically receive a 2.

If your handwriting is completely indecipherable, you could end up with a 2, but also, not being able to make out a sentence or word here and there could hurt you as well.

Can You Get Penalized for Some Messy Handwriting?

Yes, it’s possible. As I mentioned before, the SAT essay rubric mentions errors that impede on understanding. Errors that undermine the reader’s understanding can reduce your score; those that don’t will not.

Therefore, you could be penalized if your handwriting was illegible in certain parts of your essay. For example, if your handwriting was indecipherable for one sentence, but that one sentence was a crucial analysis of the passage that supported your thesis, then you would likely be penalized. If the reader couldn’t understand a single word of that sentence, then your score would likely be affected since the error would undermine the reader’s comprehension of your argument.

However, if your messy handwriting doesn’t stop the reader from understanding your argument, then your score probably won’t be affected. If the one sentence that was illegible was in your conclusion and simply summarized a point you’d already made, then you might not be penalized for that since the reader already grasped that point from earlier in your essay.

Also, if you simply have slightly sloppy but still decipherable handwriting, then your score likely won’t be affected since the handwriting won’t affect the reader’s experience.

Tips to Improve Your Handwriting

The safest way to make sure you aren’t penalized for your handwriting is to try to make it more legible, but how?

Tip #1: Write Slower

This is an easy way to improve. Just write slower and consciously try to make sure you make sure every letter is legible. Most sloppy handwriting is caused by writing way too fast. I know this is tough with only 50 minutes for the SAT essay. However, you’ll get better slowing your handwriting in this limited time with practice.

Take as many practice SAT essays as you need to until you’ve mastered the pacing while keeping your handwriting legible. I

Tip #2: Switch Your Grip and Pressure

If slowing down didn’t fix your messy handwriting, then you should try switching your grip and/or changing the pressure you put on the page. A tight grip or strong pressure can make the pencil difficult to maneuver. Try to relax your grip and ease up on the pressure on the pencil. Doing so will allow you to have more control over the pencil’s movement and allow you to create clearer letters.

Gripping the pencil closer to the point and farther from the eraser will also help you have more legible handwriting. The closer your hand to the eraser, the harder it is to control the movement of the pencil. Test this out and see the difference. Write the same word with your hand holding the end of the pencil near the eraser and holding the pencil near the point. The latter will be more legible.

Written by Dora Seigel