Is This the End of the SAT and ACT Essays?

Is this the end of the SAT and ACT essays?

The SAT and ACT essays are now hanging by a thread and are likely on their way out. The Ivy League is abandoning the essay, and without its critical support, there is little chance the SAT or ACT essays will remain relevant in the domain of college admissions.

When the Redesigned SAT arrived in March 2016 with its dramatically overhauled essay, imported directly from the AP Language and Composition Analysis Prompt, everyone in the education space entered a period of waiting. We all wanted to know: how useful will the new essay be? Will it be a robust predictor of freshman grades or at least freshman English grades? There was nothing to do but wait and see what the data would reveal.

When the redesigned SAT and ACT essays were announced, most colleges in the country, including Ivy League institutions such as Columbia, Cornell, and Penn, decided not to require them for admissions. Penn’s director of admissions, Eric Furda, cited the weak predictive power of the “old” SAT essay as the rationale for dropping the essay requirement for both tests. But a number of admissions offices wanted to run their own analyses on the revamped SAT and ACT essays before making a decision. They would require the essays of their students, allowing them to build a robust dataset. Analysis of this data would have to wait until spring 2018, when freshman grades for the inaugural class would be available.

A better predictor, but would it be good enough?

On its face, the redesigned SAT essay appeared to be a much better predictor of college performance than the much maligned SAT essay of 2005-2015. The old SAT essay allowed students to make up facts whole-cloth, which seemed misaligned with college-level writing and analysis. The College Board went to its AP cupboard to find a replacement essay, and selected the AP Language Free Response Question 2. This essay would be an exercise in careful reading, critical thinking, and writing.

An AP essay would surely be a more robust predictor of freshman grades, particularly as so many colleges and universities grant college credit for high AP Language performance. If an AP score correlates positively with college grades, would an essay pulled directly from an AP exam not yield a similar correlation? As the College Board went to great lengths to improve its essay, the ACT, Inc. responded with an improved essay of its own, increasing the number of perspectives a student had to critically evaluate to receive a high score. This redesigned ACT essay also seemed a significant improvement over the one it replaced.

Spring 2018: the beginning of the end

Two years after the first redesigned SAT essays were administered, high profile colleges began to abandon their SAT and ACT essay requirements, but not always due to issues with the essays’ validity.

March 18, 2018: Harvard drops the essay requirement

Harvard announced it was eliminating the SAT and ACT essay requirement, not on account of issues with validity or predictive power, but to expand access to lower income students. College spokesperson Rachael Dane announced “Harvard will accept the ACT/SAT with or without writing, starting with the Class of 2023…This change will add an additional component to the comprehensive outreach of the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative (HFAI), which seeks outstanding students from all economic backgrounds.”

When Harvard moves, other institutions feel pressure to follow. Yale felt some of the Crimson heat and the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Jeremiah Quinlan, responded that the SAT and ACT essays could serve as “a valuable tool” to assess student writing. He noted that the admissions office worked closely with the Office of Institutional Research and found the old essays actually had predictive validity. Quinlan expressed his desire to have more time to understand the predictive validity of the redesigned essays: “In an ideal world, we would give ourselves a couple more years before we change the testing policy again because right now the first class to take the new SAT and ACT in large numbers is the current first-year class.” This position made a lot of sense: gather enough data and then make an informed decision.

April 9, 2018: Dartmouth drops the essay requirement

Weeks after the Harvard announcement, Dartmouth, as reported by The Chicago Tribune and Washington Post, followed suit and dropped the essay requirement for admissions.

May 2018: University of San Diego drops the essay requirement

The University of San Diego was next in line to drop its essay requirement. U. San Diego was the first school to cite the lack of predictive validity as its principal rationale for the change. Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed reported on an email sent by Stephen Pultz, assistant vice president for enrollment management at San Diego: “we decided the writing sections were not reliable measures for placement purposes, which is how we originally envisioned their use. We’ve had better success using the other sections of the exams, Advanced Placement exams, and high school curriculum and grades.” This announcement was a big deal. If the new essays are not contributing to the strength of the prediction of freshman grades, then that diminishes their value in the college admissions process.

June 1, 2018: Yale drops the essay requirement

Quinlan, feeling the pressure from the string of announcements of peer schools, announced in an email sent out Friday June 1, that Yale was dropping the essay requirement, citing access for lower income students as the key driver. Quinlan hoped that dropping the essay would eliminate a barrier for admissions and “enable more students who participate in school-day administrations of the SAT or ACT to apply to Yale without needing to register for an additional test.” He had initially wanted more time to assess the predictive validity of the test, but ultimately made a move based on access for lower income students.

Fewer than 30 schools remain committed to the SAT and ACT essay

According to a Princeton Review analysis of the Common Data Set, only 26 colleges or universities now require the SAT or ACT essays: The University of California system continues to require the essay, along with Stanford, Duke, Princeton, Brown, Cal Tech, Michigan, and a handful of other schools.

Currently there is a clear disconnect between the roughly 1% (26 of the some 2,500 4-year colleges) of colleges that require the SAT and ACT essay and the 70% of SAT takers (1,202,640 students per year) and 54% of ACT takers (1,090,621 students per year) that opt to take the essay. If the University of California system pulls the plug, removing its 220,000 plus applicants, the game is essentially over for the SAT and ACT essays. Students would no longer feel compelled to take the essays, the testing giants would remove them from the tests, and the grand experiment with timed college admissions essays would end.

The Dilemma

Many of the schools who continue to require the essays are struggling to balance priorities. They are clearly getting some valuable information, at least for particular students, from these essays. But they are feeling the pressure to eliminate the essay to remove the potential financial burden posed by the essays. The Washington Post reported the Princeton’s dean of admission, Janet Rapelye, was reviewing the policy amid concerns “about access to college and to testing, especially for potential applicants from low-income backgrounds.” As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Stanford’s dean of admission and financial aid, Richard Shaw, expressed the dilemma: “So the question becomes what is the alternative to assessing writing competency in the admissions process.”

The financial argument does not seem to be as powerful as the question of predictive value. The essays range from a modest $14 to $16.50, a tiny fraction of what students will spend in the college admissions process, and for lower income students, these fees are typically offset by fee-waivers from the College Board and ACT, Inc., effectively eliminating the issue of access. But the value of the essays as a predictor of performance is much more important. And most schools are not citing that as a factor in their decision making process.

It’s interesting to note that the schools who require the essays seem to be admitting students with a wide range of essay scores. Examining the Common Data Set, schools like Princeton are admitting the middle 50% of its class with ACT essay scores ranging from 6 to 10; Duke’s middle 50% has a range of 8 to 10. As the score range for the ACT essay is 2-12, it is clear that these institutions are allowing students a relatively wide berth for their submitted essay scores.  

These colleges require the essay, but they are not demanding perfection, or close to it, from their students. And up to this point, colleges did not have the data they needed to determine what difference it made if a student had a 6 or an 11 on the essay and how that would inform collegiate performance.

A Hedge against application fraud

One thing these colleges definitely are getting with the essays is an unadulterated view into the timed writing skills of an applicant. Admissions officers have access to other writing samples, such as a student’s personal statement and supplemental essays, but admissions officers are well aware that some students get significant help writing these essays, and the degree of outside assistance can degrade the validity of these writing measures. When it comes to forced, timed essays on the SAT and ACT, there is no question who is doing the writing. With a few clicks of a mouse, an admissions officer can see exactly how a student writes in a timed, controlled condition. Though this is clearly an imperfect measure of a student’s global writing ability, with a timing constraint imposed, it can provide a helpful data point when there may be a question of a student’s independent writing ability. This is one of the chief reasons why many admissions tests such as the GRE, GMAT, and MCAT all  have a timed writing component.

Gain and losses

There can be value in the essays. For the SAT and ACT essays the question remains: does the value outweigh the costs? In my view, the initial reaction of Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Jeremiah Quinlan, was the right one—wait to see the predictive value of these new essays for your particular institution. If these essays ultimately prove to be weak predictors of college performance for a given institution, then that would certainly weaken the impetus to include them in the admissions decision. Their role would then be reduced to serving as a hedge against a student getting too much help on admissions essays and college applications.   

In the current state of affairs, it does not seem that empirical data and evidence are informing the decision of most admissions offices to drop the essays. The tide is turning against the essays, and they will likely soon be removed from the tests or ignored by students and admissions offices. Students will certainly not miss them, but we may leave some admissions deans like Stanford’s scrambling to find a reliable means of “assessing writing competency in the admissions process.”   


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