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Top Schools Drop SAT and ACT Essays

Last month, Yale dropped the essay requirement for students submitting SAT and ACT scores for admission, a move that caused our founder, Jed, to speculate about the future of the SAT and ACT essays. Yale was following in the footsteps of Harvard, who dropped the requirement in March 2018, and Dartmouth, who dropped it in April. Last week, two more top-level schools joined the party – Princeton and Stanford, who both announced their decisions on July 7th. And on Wednesday, July 11th, both Brown and Caltech announced that they would be dropping the essay requirement for test scores.

The SAT and ACT essays have had an interesting history. The ACT’s essay section has always been optional, but from 2006-2016, the SAT featured a mandatory essay section at the beginning of the test. In 2016, during the overhaul of the SAT, the College Board made the essay portion optional, like the ACT’s essay, and placed it at the end of the test. Both the SAT and the ACT feature essay prompts that ask students to analyze and respond to either a written argument or several perspectives on an issue. The goal of the essay, in both cases, is to measure a student’s ability to produce well-written arguments. The ability to write well is crucial to college success, and as many students get help with college admissions essays, the SAT and ACT essay may be the only chance an admissions officer gets to see the student’s raw writing ability. In a statement to Inside Higher Ed, a spokesperson for the College Board said that “because essay responses are collected in a secure test administration, individuals and institutions making use of the essay’s scores can have confidence that the work produced is each student’s own.”

For Stanford, Princeton and Brown, the decision to drop the SAT and ACT essay requirement was motivated by a desire to make applying more affordable. Stanford spokesperson E.J. Miranda told The Stanford Daily that the change is meant to make Stanford “more accessible” to all students. Likewise, Princeton’s official statement claims that the new policy “aims to alleviate the financial hardship placed on students.”

The additional essay section doesn’t add too much to the overall ACT or SAT registration – it costs $16.50 more to take the ACT with essay and $17 more to take the SAT with essay – but high schools that pay for their students to take the tests for free do not always offer the essay as an option. In that sense, the essay could be a barrier between low-income students and highly competitive schools. In an official press release, Logan Powell, Dean of Admissions at Brown, said, “Given the significant growth in free school-day testing, it’s important to enable students from low-income families to take advantage of the tests already offered by their school districts and not place an undue burden on them to go in separately outside of normal school hours.”

It’s important to note, however, that both Brown and Stanford will still look at SAT and ACT essay scores. In fact, Miranda told The Stanford Daily that the essay was still “strongly recommended” by the admissions office at Stanford. As we’ve found in our years of coaching students, “strongly recommended” really means “unofficially required,” especially at a school as competitive as Stanford.

Princeton is taking a different approach. In lieu of SAT or ACT essay scores, students must submit a graded, academic paper with their application. The university prefers papers from a history or English class, but there are no guidelines as to length. According to the official statement, “University officials believe that assessing a student’s in-class work will provide helpful and meaningful insight into a student’s academic potential.” Admissions officers can reference this writing sample if they see a discrepancy between test scores and the quality of the student’s application essay, which is separate from this sample.

For Brown, students may submit SAT and ACT essay scores, but the school is also recommending that students submit a graded piece of writing, just like the one required by Princeton. This emphasis on graded work isn’t unique to either school, though. The Common App, which allows students to apply to multiple colleges easily, features set of essay prompts, one of which asks students to “[s]hare an essay on any topic of [their] choice. It can be one [they’ve] already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of [their] own design.” Schools that use the Common App may allow students to choose that prompt for their writing sample. The Coalition App, which also allows students the ability to apply to a number of schools, has a “locker” feature where students can upload graded material to attach to applications. All eight Ivies and Stanford participate in both the Common and Coalition Apps, so these platforms are an easy way for students to collect and store written work for submission.

For students who struggle with timed writing, this is good news. It’s difficult to produce a thorough, artful, and grammatically correct argument in 40-50 minutes, particularly after a difficult 3-hour test. Instead of hurried first drafts, schools like Princeton will now examine students’ finished products, allowing them to draft, edit, and revise. And, as Independent Educational Consultant Nancy Griesemer writes, “Graded papers not only provide insight into a student’s basic writing ability, but they also speak volumes about a high school’s grading system. ”It can serve as another tool that admissions officials can use to contextualize students’ grades.

Caltech, on the other hand, has not replaced the SAT or ACT essay with another writing requirement; what’s more, unlike Stanford, Caltech will not even look at the essay scores if they are included in prospective students’ test reports. Caltech did not give specific reasons for this decision, apart from reassuring prospective students that “[a]ll students will be given [their] full consideration through Caltech’s holistic review method.”

According to College Board data, a whopping 70% of students who take the SAT do take the optional essay, despite the fact that fewer than two dozen schools require it for admissions. The same goes for the ACT.  According to Inside Higher Ed, the University of Michigan – another staunch supporter of the SAT and ACT essays – is also considering dropping the requirement. The biggest holdouts are the schools in the University of California system, including Berkeley and UCLA. It will be interesting to see whether they hold fast to the essay requirement or follow Stanford and Caltech’s lead.

Click here for more information on the SAT and ACT essays. Jed’s take on the use of the essays in admissions can be found here.

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