Sat Essay Machine

In 2016, around1.6 million students took the SAT (either old or new) at least once. If every student submitted an essay, the College Board needed to grade 1.6 million essays. Since the essay was first offered with the writing section in 2005, the College Board has relied on human graders to evaluate the student work. Assuming that a grader reads one essay every 3 minutes, 800 essays a week, and is paid$15 per hour, one grader can grade 40,000 essays in a year at a cost of $30,000. Put another way, each essay costs $1.50 for two graders to evaluate each student essay. Using these metrics, the College Board spends $2.4 million each year paying graders to evaluate essays, not considering the cost of administering, transporting, scanning, and storing essays, or paying a third grader if the scores of the first two differed significantly. If only there were another way to grade essays and use the $2.4 million for other meaningful purposes…

Enter the automated essay scorer, a mere theory in 1966 that has grown into a reality for many institutions. In 1999, the ETS (Educational Testing Service) offered one of the first automatic essay scorers, called e-rater, and testing companies have had more than 15 years to improve upon that earlier model. More recently, the GMAT published a 2009 study affirming the fairness of its automated essay scorer, IntelliMetric. The analytical writing assignment is scored by a human as well as a computer, and the two scores are averaged together. By incorporating a computer into the grading process, the GMAT not only saves half the cost of grading the essay, but also is able to perform an objective analysis of sentence structure, word count, and complexity that a human reader would not have the time to complete. With a human reader assessing the coherence of the argument and the computer comparing the essay with its database of essays, the GMAT can enjoy the best of both worlds.

It makes sense, then, that the College Board and ACT would be eager to follow in GMAT’s footsteps. If they could replace one reader with a computer, there is the potential to save the hypothetical $1.2 million per year and invest it elsewhere. The fact that both tests have expressed a desire to move to a digital format in the coming decade makes the transition that much simpler: if a test taker types an essay rather than writes it, a computer could deliver a tentative score instantaneously. Only one human reader would be required to follow up and ensure that the computer graded the essay appropriately.

In a preview of that world, the College Board teamed up with Khan Academy to  grade electronically the practice essays available online. Currently, students can input essays for SAT Tests 1 and 2 on Khan’s website and receive automated feedback based on the College Board’s essay rubric: 3 scores for reading, analysis, and writing, each out of 8 points.

Naturally, we had to test out the automated essay grader for ourselves.

0, 0, 0

Simply copying and pasting an unrelated article resulted in zeroes across the board.

0, 0, 0

Writing one relevant paragraph and copy/pasting it several times also resulted in zeroes.

7, 4, 7

Five well-written but shorter paragraphs yielded high marks for reading and writing, but low marks for analysis. The computer grader, like its human predecessors, knows the limits of a short essay.

8, 6, 7

Adding an additional paragraph to create a longer essay boosted analysis as well as reading.

Thus far, we noticed that the essay grader does a good job of identifying irrelevant, repeated material. It also evaluates the length when determining its score. To test the program further, we asked ourselves how the grader would respond to a nonsensical essay that used all the right words and sentence structure, even referencing rhetorical devices and making quotations of the passage. Try and make sense of the following introduction, written by one of our more linguistically creative tutors. (The essay asked students to evaluate the rhetorical devices used by Bogard, who in a persuasive essay laments the diverse and damaging effects of light pollution on humans and animals.)

Darkness can symbolize a protean notion of absolute nihilism, floating endlessly in a void without any smattering of perception or purpose. Bogard embraces this absence and sees darkness as a lofty pursuit necessary for absolute harmony within our fractured post-modern existence. For when we lose the dark, we become absorbed by the light and the nocturnal chimeras of our subconscious cannot take flight. Using alliterative juxtapositions, carcinogenic conceits, and allusions to fiscal collapse, Borgard persuades the audience that we need to embrace the abyss in order to keep balance in an increasingly fractured and oppressive world.(click here to continue reading).

This essay used very high-level vocabulary and sentence structure, relevantly addressed the rhetorical devices within the author’s passage, and even supplied quotations from key parts of the passage. Surely a human would be required to recognize the ingenious absurdity of this author’s writing!

The computer gave 7’s for reading and writing, fairly evaluating the author’s ability to read Bogard’s argument critically and craft well-written paragraphs. Much to our surprise, the computer gave the writer a 2 for analysis, easily recognizing that the author’s essay, however well it was written and however well it interacted with the rhetorical passage, was absurd to the extreme. Nicely done, automated grader.

In addition to the essay grader which provides scores for Tests 1 and 2, Khan Academy also provides more personalized feedback. To serve the students looking for more in-depth analysis, the College Board partnered with TurnItIn to give specific line-by-line suggestions for the practice essay section. Students can write essays and receive comments on particular sections of their essays based on their reading, analysis, and writing abilities.

The College Board and ACT have their work cut out for them to persuade colleges and universities that their essays are predictive of college success for applicants. Despite the initially lukewarm reception to the redesigned essays, the College Board is investing resources into electronic essay grading, demonstrating its belief that the exercise provides a valuable metric for colleges. We can expect at least one set of human eyes to continue grading student essays in the short term, but if the Khan Academy essay grader is any indication, even that role may be close to retirement.

Applerouth is a trusted test prep and tutoring resource. We combine the science of learning with a thoughtful, student-focused approach to help our clients succeed. Call or email us today at 866-789-PREP (7737) or

Some people really prefer mechanical pencils to regular pencils. If you are one of those people, you may wonder if you can use a mechanical pencil on the SAT or the ACT.

The short answer is no, but the long answer is a much more convoluted “Maybe, but I don’t recommend it.” Read on for a breakdown of the official policies for each exam, why this rule exists, the actual reality of mechanical pencils on the exam, my recommendation, and some other important administrative regulations to remember for test day. 


The Official Rules: Don't Use a Mechanical Pencil

The SAT and the ACT are different tests administered by different companies, so I’ll go over their regulations separately, even though they both disallow mechanical pencils in their official rules.


Mechanical Pencils on the SAT

I actually had a hard time hunting up the official SAT rules on mechanical pencils.  Their official list of items to bring includes No. 2 pencils, but their official list of items to not bring does not include mechanical pencils. 

Only on the actual test instructions does it say that “A No. 2 pencil is required for the test. Do not bring a mechanical pencil or a pen.”


Mechanical Pencils on the ACT

On the ACT’s list of general test tips, they state that you cannot use a mechanical pencil or ink pen because your answer document will not be scored correctly. This justification may or may not be true, but either way, mechanical pencils aren’t allowed.


He's crying because his beloved mechanical pencils are forbidden.


Why Does This Rule Exist?

Why can’t you use your trusty mechanical pencil on your standardized college entrance exam? I’ll go over several theories and my take on them.


Theory #1: The Scantron Machine Can’t Score Your Sheet

The most popular theory—one that the ACT in particular claims is true—is that scantron machines can’t “read” your sheet if you fill in your bubbles with a mechanical pencil. Is this true? Maybe, but probably not. 

Here’s the deal: older scantron machines worked by blasting your paper with light and could only “read” the answer if the light was completely blocked from coming through the paper. Pencil graphite—specifically in weight #2—was great for blocking the light. Lighter weights of graphite and black pen ink didn’t block enough light to be read, and darker graphite smeared really easily, leading to “false positives.” So, you had to use a #2 pencil. (You can read more about how old scantron machines worked if you’re a big nerd like me.)

The first SAT was administered in 1926, and the first ACT in 1959. The first scantron-type machines were used to score tests in the 1930s. So for a lot of SAT and ACT history, the older machines couldn’t read anything other than the marks made by a #2 pencil, and mechanical pencils weren’t yet very common in school settings. During that time, it made much more sense to require regular #2 pencils and disallow mechanical ones. 

However, new scantron machines are much more sophisticated and can generally pick out the darkest mark in a row no matter how it’s made—just so long as the mark isn’t in the same color ink that the sheet was printed in. It’s probably safe to assume that major testing companies like the College Board (they do the SAT) and ACT, Inc. use modern scantron machines that can pick out the darkest mark on the sheet regardless of what writing utensil you used.

But even if they don’t use modern scantron machines, you should actually still be able to use a mechanical pencil and have it be read by the machine correctly, just so long as you use the correct lead weight. The pencil lead weight that corresponds to #2 pencil lead is “HB.” With the same type of lead, it’s deeply unlikely any scantron machine in use today, no matter how outdated, would have trouble reading your markings. (You can read more about lead grades and mechanical pencils here if you are interested.)

I personally think that it is downright misleading for the ACT to claim that scantron machines might not be able to read your paper correctly if you use a mechanical pencil. 

However, the fact is that enormous bureaucratic organizations like the ACT and the College Board generally take a long time to change rules and regulations—if they change them at all. And neither organization necessarily stands to gain a whole lot from the change in this case: whether or not a student can use a mechanical pencil is unlikely to make or break their testing decision (if they even have a choice on whether to take the test or not). So since there’s no pressing reason to reevaluate this rule, it stays.


Change: someone else will do it. 


Theory #2: Mechanical Pencils Rip Your Paper

A popular theory floating around online—especially on message boards and forums—is that mechanical pencils aren’t allowed because they rip the flimsy test booklet paper too easily.

What’s my take? I guess it’s possible that mechanical pencils would rip the test booklets a little more easily than regular pencils, although it seems like a super-sharpened pencil would be just as likely to do damage there. A mechanical pencil’s paper-ripping capabilities would also depend a lot on the width of your lead, which is variable. I doubt that testing organizations would disallow mechanical pencils solely for this; it’s not like mechanical pencils are generally ruthless paper-destroying machines. So I don’t think this is a big factor in the decision to bar mechanical pencils.


Theory #3: Mechanical Pencils Help You Cheat

There are many stories and urban legends that suggest mechanical pencils are not allowed because they could be used as cheating devices.

One such tale is that a student put a tiny camera inside his mechanical pencil and used it to take pictures of the test. Another cheating theory is that students could roll up ripped-out pieces of test booklet sheets and fit them in the empty barrel of a mechanical pencil. That seems like a lot of effort to smuggle maybe two or three questions out of the testing facility, and the kind of thing that even the most blase proctor would notice. 

Similarly, some people claim that the pencils aren’t allowed because people would smuggle in formula sheets and notes rolled up in the pencil. This plan, of course, relies on you having a proctor who pays very little attention to what is going on in the room.

Do I think any of these scenarios individually are particularly likely? No. Do I think it’s possible that major testing organizations are worried enough about cheating to disallow mechanical pencils for this reason? Yes, I do. The College Board and the ACT have a vested interest in people believing that the test is secure and so they take steps to secure it (whether those steps are adequate or effective is a question for another day). The very fact that people feel disallowing mechanical pencils may prevent cheating is a good reason to disallow them. This sounds circular, butfor a major testing organization, appearances and impressions are important.


So Why Does This Rule Exist?

As alluded to above, I think there are two main reasons this rule exists. First, it’sa holdover from a time when scantrons were much more primitive and mechanical pencils much less common in schools. Second, it gives the appearance of a more secure test, which is good for the testing companies.

We’ve now established that using a mechanical pencil probably won’t cause a problem with your score, but the fact is that they are still forbidden by the official rules for both tests. Where does this leave us?


We're in a pencil pickle!


The Truth: Using a Mechanical Pencil Might Be Fine

As I’ve explained, your mechanical pencil probably won’t cause scoring difficulties for you on the SAT or the ACT. One of our experts here at Prepscholar did in fact use a mechanical pencil for her SAT (the multiple choice and essay sections) and she reported that nothing happened. No scoring difficulties, no delays—no one even noticed. So it can definitely be fine.

However, whether or not you are able to actually use a mechanical pencil on test day depends a lot on your exam proctor. If they a) notice and b) care, they will make you put away that mechanical pencil, or confiscate it for the testing period. In that case, you’d better hope you have another (regular) pencil. So what should you do?


My Recommendation: Bring Regular Pencils

Personally, my recommendation is that you take your standardized tests with regular #2 pencils, for the following three reasons. 


#1: Exam Proctors

Following the rules to a T by using the approved #2 pencils will keep you from tussling with a proctor. It’s not worth potentially getting in a stressful power struggle before (or during!) your exam over your writing utensils. 


#2: Regular Pencils Are Better for Filling in Bubbles

It’s actually easier and faster to fill in bubbles with a regular pencil. As the tip gets duller, you can cover more circle area per pencil stroke. A mechanical pencil takes much longer to fill in each bubble as it remains perpetually sharp. If you’re worried about not having a sharp enough pencil for parts of the exam where you need one, just bring lots of extra pencils. I think I had something like five or six when I took the exam and that was plenty for me, but if you want to bring fifteen pre-sharpened Ticonderogas, go ahead.


#3: Less Mechanical Failure

No mechanical pencils means no lead breakage or pencil failure! Mechanical pencils have their advantages and uses, but they are more likely to have a mechanical error or repeated broken lead issues than a regular pencil. You also will have to painstakingly refill your lead if you run out, which wastes time. By using plain old wooden pencils, you’re limiting the chances you’ll have a stressful technical malfunction during the exam.


Also, regular pencils are better for drawing masterpieces in your test booklet.


With all this said, if you feel strongly that you will be more comfortable with a mechanical pencil, by all means, bring one to the testing center and use it if no one stops you. But if you do this, be sure to bring regular pencils too, and be prepared to use them in case a proctor takes away your trust mechanical sidekick or your mechanical pencil breaks.


Other Important Things to Remember for Test Day

First, be sure to bring your test ticket/reservation sheet and an acceptable photo ID to the testing center! You don’t want to get turned away because they can’t verify your identity.

Second, regular #2 pencils are the only writing utensils allowed. You already know to leave your mechanical pencil at home, but no pens or markers or colored pencils allowed, either.

Third, you are allowed to bring a watch, and I highly recommend doing so to help you keep track of your time/pace.

Finally, no reading material or personal devices are allowed in the testing room, so if you finish early you’ll need to sit tight.


Key Takeaways

Mechanical pencils are officially not allowed on the SAT or the ACT. The ACT claims that this is because your test won’t be scored properly if you use a mechanical pencil. I don’t think this is true, but it’s going to be better for you if you follow the rules on test day. The moment you are taking your SAT or ACT is probably not the time to rage against the machine and stick it to the man and his bureaucratic rules. 

However, if your mechanical pencil is very important to you, go ahead and bring it—just so long as you have normal pencils as backup and you are mentally prepared to use them.


What's Next?

Check out some other SAT rules and ACT rules that you need to know.

Wondering what to do the night before you take the SAT? Let us advise. 

Taking the ACT? Be sure to bring these things to the testing center.


Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:


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