Should You Take the SAT/ACT Essay and Subject Tests?
As hundreds of thousands of students across the country make their testing plans, many parents have been asking, should my child take the SAT or ACT essay or the SAT Subject Tests? For nearly all students, these assessments have become entirely optional, but that doesn’t negate the value of submitting a strong score for certain students to select schools.
The SAT/ACT Essay
For the overwhelming majority of students, the SAT/ACT essay will have no bearing upon their applications this admissions cycle. When The University of California dropped the essay requirement this summer, the essay lost relevance for hundreds of thousands of students, a change we explored in detail in our article, the collapse of the SAT/ACT essay. The essays are now “required” at only a handful of colleges and “recommended” by only a small cohort of schools, the majority of which have shifted to test-optional admission during the pandemic.
Here is a current snapshot of SAT/ACT essay policies:
Colleges that require the SAT/ACT essay
|United States Military Academy||12,294|
|Rhode Island College||4,753||Requires the ACT essay only||Test Optional 2020|
|Soka University of America||462||Test Optional 2020|
|University of Mary Hardin Baylor||1,500||Used for advising, not admissions|
|Martin Luther College||4,422||Requires the ACT essay only|
|University of Montana Western||6,182||Requires the ACT essay only||Test Optional 2020|
|University of Minnesota, Morris||3,211||Test Optional 2020|
Colleges that recommend the SAT/ACT essay
|Amherst College||10,427||Test Optional 2020|
|Berry College||4,219||Recommends ACT essay only||Test Optional 2020|
|Abilene Christian University||10,252||Test Optional 2020|
|Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences||1,985|
|Augsburg College||1,500||Test Optional 2020|
|College of Charleston||11,387||Test Optional 2020|
|Duke University||35,764||Test Optional 2020|
|Eastern Illinois University||9,588||Recommends ACT essay only||Test Optional 2020|
|Saint Anselm College||3,742||Test Optional 2020|
|Michigan State University||44,322||Test Optional 2020|
|Montana State University||19,142||Not used for admissions||Test Optional 2020|
|University of Minnesota, Twin Cities||43,720||Test Optional 2020|
|Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania||5,927||Not used for admissions||Test Optional 2020|
|Texas State University||31,873||Recommends ACT essay only||Test Optional 2020|
|State University of New York at Buffalo||29,900||Not used for admissions||Test Optional 2020|
|University of Montana||6,182||Test Optional 2020|
|Webb Institute of Naval Architecture||106||Test Optional 2020|
Of the eight colleges that continue to require the SAT/ACT essay, all but three have shifted to test-optional admissions during the pandemic. The only remaining schools that continue to require the essays this admission cycle are The US Military Academy, the University of Mary Hardin Baylor (which uses the essays only for placement, and not admissions), and Martin Luther College. Of the schools that continue to recommend the SAT/ACT essay, only the Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and The Webb Institute of Naval Architecture have not announced policies of test-optional admissions for 2020.
With all this in mind, should you bother to take the essays and submit scores even though they’re not required? Will a high essay score make any difference to the admissions office? Most likely, no. It is our understanding that in recent admissions cycles, the essay scores have played an incredibly minor role, if any, in the process of admissions.
Even at highly selective schools that previously required the SAT/ACT essay for admission, the majority of students were admitted with merely average or slightly above average essay scores. For example, at Duke, MIT, and Wellesley, the “middle 50%” SAT/ACT essay scores were in the range of 8-10, while Princeton admitted the middle 50% of its class with essay scores ranging from a modest 6-10. While these admissions offices required outstanding performance on the SAT and ACT, they never applied the same level of scrutiny to the essay scores.
If you’re a senior not applying to Westpoint, Mary Hardin Baylor or Martin Luther, you probably don’t need to spend time or energy taking the SAT/ACT essay this year. However, if you’re a junior, things are less certain. Although the pandemic has fueled test-optional admissions this year, we anticipate that many schools will return to requiring test scores once the crisis has passed. If this bears out, students applying to highly selective colleges that recommend the SAT/ACT essay will want to consider taking it. If I were a current junior applying to Duke or Amherst, and they recommended taking the essay, I’d take it. These schools are so incredibly selective, that any chance to distinguish oneself is worth seriously considering.
SAT Subject Tests
SAT Subject Tests have been in a slow decline for years, and the pandemic has accelerated that trend. In February, MIT, CalTech, and Harvey Mudd dropped their longstanding SAT Subject Test requirements. Many selective schools that have historically recommended, encouraged, or welcomed these tests (including Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Rice, and Princeton) have now downgraded their recommendation to “will consider” (meaning, if you send the scores, they will remain a factor in admission, but other students who do not submit scores will not be at a competitive disadvantage).
As a result, the list of colleges that continue to recommend, encourage, or welcome the Subject Tests is now quite small:
|Recommended, Encouraged, Welcomed|
|Lehigh||Yale (Not in 2021)||U. California|
Here is a list of selective schools that will consider the Subject Tests in admission:
|Barnard||Claremont McKenna||George Washington||Notre Dame||Stanford||Vassar|
|Boston College||Colorado||Ithaca||Oberlin||Tufts||Wash U.|
|Boston U||Columbia||Johns Hopkins||Occidental||Tulane||Wellesley|
|Brown||Cooper Union||Lafayette||Princeton||UNC||William And Mary|
Even schools that recommend or “will consider” the Subject Tests are making it very clear that these scores are completely optional during the pandemic. Here are some of the announcements from the Ivy League about their COVID-related testing policies:
- Harvard: “Applicants will not face penalties if they are unable to submit Advanced Placement test scores or SAT Subject Test results.”
- Yale: “The Advanced Placement and SAT Subject Tests that were once ‘recommended’ have become entirely optional.”
- Princeton: “While our policy has long been that SAT Subject Tests are recommended but not required, now seems the appropriate time to reiterate that applicants who do not submit Subject Tests will not be disadvantaged in our process.”
In short: Subject Test scores are not required for admission in the current admissions cycle.
With the Subject Tests being effectively optional this year, should strong test-takers still consider taking them?
If, and only if, a student has completed the SAT or ACT tests and attained a competitive score should a student consider sitting for the SAT Subject Tests. On a given test date, a student can take either the SAT or the SAT Subject Tests. If a student plans on submitting an SAT score, the SAT must take absolute priority over the SAT Subject Tests. If a student has attained a strong SAT or ACT score for the schools on that student’s list and has access to testing in their home market, then it could make sense to invest time in the SAT Subject Tests.
This is a year when many of the normal differentiators for applicants have been wiped out. Many students had their spring grades reduced to pass-fail or had their mid-year grades frozen for the semester. Activities were eliminated, internships and work and travel opportunities were eliminated. Students were unable to travel to campuses to demonstrate interest. Because of the pandemic, students have never looked more similar. For this reason, anything which makes a student stand out is beneficial.
If a student can attain very strong scores (typically, we advise at least 700+) on an SAT Subject Test, then the scores can help to serve as a differentiator. Many things that are “not required” can be highly beneficial to an application, and strong test scores are no exception. At the most selective schools, application numbers will be up because test-optional policies will bring students into the pool who would have self-selected out due to weaker test scores. Admissions officers will have more applicants and less information to work with. Thus, any strong signal of academic strength is a net positive.
After the pandemic, SAT Subject Tests will continue to play a role, although a diminished one. Every year, more schools downgrade their emphasis on these tests, and time will tell if the College Board chooses to completely phase out these tests as they decrease in prominence.
When it comes to this extraordinary year of college admissions, the SAT/ACT essay will be irrelevant for the overwhelming majority of applicants and the SAT Subject Tests will play a role, albeit a smaller one than in years past, at the selective schools that continue to consider them in the admissions decision. Beyond this year, it is unlikely the SAT/ACT essays will recover their former position, and it is more likely they will disappear entirely. The SAT Subject Tests will continue to have relevance for the highly selective schools that use them in their admissions processes. Students intending to apply to the cohort of highly selective schools that consider SAT Subject Tests may benefit from investing the time and resources to attain a competitive score. Remember that while many aspects of the application, from activities to course selection, from additional recommendations to supplemental essays may be optional, they can be well worth the effort.