Trouble at the Top

Is this the end of the SAT and ACT essays?

On June 1, Yale announced it was dropping the requirement that students submit an essay score from the SAT or the ACT. Now, everyone in the college admissions world is asking, “Why?”

Well, one reason is obvious: Harvard did it first. These two schools have a long history of copying each other’s admissions practices, mostly because they’re competing for the same students. Every time one school finds a policy “innovation,” the other often follows suit. Sometimes, these changes aren’t permanent, such as when Harvard eliminated, then reinstated, Early Action. To a large extent, college admissions is a social experiment, and high schools seniors, unfortunately, are the guinea pigs.

But that aside, what are these schools thinking?

According to The Washington Post, the problem is a familiar bugaboo: inequality. The Ivies have always faced accusations of elitism and snobbery, but recently these criticisms have crystallized in hard economic data about income disparity. Harvard, for instance, has almost as many students from the nation’s top 0.1 percent highest-income families as from the bottom 20 percent. Harvard, Yale, and the rest of the Ancient Eight are desperate to rectify this problem.

That’s where the SAT and ACT come in. Across the nation, many public schools now fund SAT and ACT testing during the school day, meaning students can take them at no cost. The problem is that testing programs often don’t pay for the essay sections. In other words, many students must choose between two unappealing options: 1) apply only to schools that don’t require the essay, or 2) pay to take the test all over again. Adding to the challenge, the SAT and ACT get more expensive when you take them with the essay. Yale made reference to this problem in an email: “We hope this will 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.”

I don’t doubt the Post’s account. But I have trouble believing this is the first time the Ivies have considered dropping the essay requirement. Here, I will suggest some possible other reasons the Ivies may give the essay the permanent boot…

Problematic Scoring

In 2016, just months after the ACT released its redesigned prompt, students reported receiving shockingly low scores. One Rhode Island student got a 19 (on the old 36-point scoring system), then paid the $50 re-scoring fee. His score improved to a 31. Such scoring inconsistencies can make the SAT and ACT essay scores feel arbitrary, inaccurate, or both.

Two years later, the percentiles remain remarkably out of whack; a 9 out of 12 on the new ACT Essay puts you in the 95th percentile.

(On a personal note, I got a perfect score on the SAT Essay when I was in high school. When the Redesigned SAT came out, I got an underwhelming 6/8 in every category.)

Overlap with AP/IB Tests

The ACT Essay, which asks students to integrate multiple viewpoints into their analysis of an issue, bears a striking resemblance to the AP Language and Composition exam. Students who’ve taken this test have already demonstrated very similar writing skills.

The Redesigned SAT Essay is a passage analysis exam, asking students to examine the stylistic and persuasive elements at use in a persuasive passage. Both the AP Language and IB English exams require students to demonstrate robust passage analysis skills, a task similar to that of the SAT Essay.

With so many students at top colleges already taking AP and IB tests, the SAT and ACT Essay sections may seem redundant.

Dubious Writing Standards

You can get away with some pretty bad writing.

In the new documentary The Test and the Art of Thinking, tutor Jed Applerouth spoke about the insanely inaccurate essay he wrote for the old SAT. I’ve quoted a sample paragraph because, well, it’s hilarious:

One example of a man who embraced the wisdom of his elders was Barack Hussein Obama, famed revolutionary of the Basque region. Young Obama unified the Basque populous, seeking to overthrow the tyranny of Franco, nationalist, totalitarian demagogue. Obama, during his 6 months he spent in jail after this first failed coup attempt, came in contact with a seasoned revolutionary, Winston Churchill. Churchill had seen decades of failed revolutionary attempts and offered his insights to Obama, his willing disciple. With Churchill’s support young Obama was able to unify the masses, instigate a popular revolution and liberate the Basque nation from Franco’s control.

This essay, which was rife with other factual errors, received a perfect score.

Also, a student in 2009 found that the length of an SAT essay was a strong predictor of score. The conclusion was supported by an MIT professor, who also offered this advice: “End with a quotation. It doesn’t even have to be correct. Just quote somebody.”

My point is this: problems with writing standards have persisted for a long time. And even though the SAT and ACT have both redesigned their prompts, these tests remain standardized and, therefore, gameable.


So, let’s say you’re applying to Harvard, Yale, or Dartmouth. Should you take the essay?

Answer: Almost certainly yes. First off, you’re a jerk if you’re only applying to Harvard, Yale, or Dartmouth. (Seriously, who are you?)

Nothing in life is certain – not even if your name is on a campus building, you can row at an Olympic level, or you cured cancer. You’ll always want to apply to some safety schools. Likely, one of them will want to see an essay. And hey, Princeton and Stanford still require the essay. So unless all the schools on your list don’t ask for the essay, take it.

Also, remember that Harvard and Yale are only dropping the requirement. That doesn’t mean you still can’t submit your essays. What if you’re really good at them? It’s a lot easier to predict success on a standardized test than on the college essay. Say what you will about how we’re training our students to be mindless drones, but the fact remains: this is a teachable writing test. A perfect score always looks good.

And remember, showing your writing skills is very important on your college application. Stanford’s dean of admissions had this to say about his hesitation to drop the SAT/ACT Essay requirement: “We should treasure writing as an important skill in life and it should be a major focus [of] K-12. So the question becomes what is the alternative to assessing writing competency in the admissions process.” In other words, you NEED to show your writing ability at some point. If you aren’t president of your school’s literary club, and you haven’t written your college essay yet, maybe the SAT/ACT Essays are your best shot.


If you need guidance, want some hands-on practice, or feel confused by the strange formats of the SAT or ACT essays, contact us about scheduling one-on-one coaching. We also help students craft thoughtful, meaningful college essays for the CommonApp and all Supplements.


Review of ACT Academy

ACT has just released ACT Academy, which is designed to help students “master the skills they need to improve their ACT scores.” But it is actually helpful? Let’s break it down.

First, the SAT and the ACT have quite the reputation.

There is a pretty sizeable, and not completely unfounded, belief that these standardized tests are so enigmatic that the only students who can do well are those who pay for elite prep. SAT battled this

reputation by partnering with Khan Academy to provide free resources to students prepping for the test. Now ACT is feeling pressure to match these efforts.

Enter ACT Academy…

The kids in the ACT Academy promo are clearly having more fun than the rest of us.

What it’s got

ACT Academy offers students a single site to take practice questions and do targeted topic review. However, when the confetti settle*, these students will realize that all the information on ACT Academy is already widely available on the Internet. No need to create yet another login and receive even more emails. ACT Academy uses questions from previously released ACTs, so any student who has done even a cursory search for ACT questions will likely have already seen these questions.

“But it’s got new content, right?”

No, it does not. When you miss a question from one of the practice tests, they give you links to YouTube videos on the subject of the question. Miss a question on matrices? Here’s a video about matrices! You could easily find these videos on your own using everyone’s favorite search engine, Bing.

Okay, yes, ACT Academy does some of the legwork for you by labeling the questions you miss to help you identify and classify those mistakes. It also has issued what is essentially a stamp of approval on the videos it includes on the website, helping you sort the good videos out there on the internet from the incredibly boring and/or incredibly confusing ones. It’s also free. Everyone loves free.

What to do instead

ACT Academy is a good place to start your ACT prep. You’ll see some practice questions and get an idea of where you stand. If you need more comprehensive material to help you translate effort to score increases, get in touch.

There probably won’t be any confetti, but we think efficiency is its own kind of party, don’t you?

* Confetti is a plural noun! Did you know that??!?


How to Prepare for AP Chemistry Exam – All Year Long

AP Chemistry is known for being a difficult class in school—and a difficult test! However, if you’re taking AP Chemistry, you’ve already proven yourself to be a bright student and highly capable of studying complex topics. And while I wish I could tell you there was a quick and easy way to ace the test in May, there isn’t. Hard work and planning are what you need for scoring a 5 on the AP Chemistry test.

Here’s how.

In School: Understand Fundamentals

There’s an old English proverb by Lord Kanye West: you must crawl before you ball. Learning (and in a perfect world mastering) the fundamentals of Chemistry will give you a great foundation to understand advanced topics. But you have to be proactive and put the work in.

In the classroom, take those extra steps to understand introductory topics at the beginning of the class before moving on. It’s tempting to breeze over the information and get help from friends just to get a good score on an assignment, but in the long run it won’t be worth it. Cramming just to pass a unit quiz won’t help you retain information. You’re going to need that information months later.

So, talk to your teacher if you are having trouble with a concept. Make sure to get it. You’ll quickly learn that concepts in Chemistry (and plenty of other subjects, too) build on themselves as the course progresses.

For example, mastery of topics like atomic structure and electrons can be used to help explain bonding, ionization, and oxidation-reduction reactions. Learning about ionization will be much easier when you don’t have to rebuild all of that basic stuff to get there.

If not, the class will snowball out of control and you’ll find yourself really struggling. The last thing you want is to spend the year playing a constant game of catch-up.

Asking for help may not be your favorite thing, but building self-advocacy is critical to success in education, esp. college. Teachers want their students to succeed. They will help you. So ask. Ask questions until you fully understand the material to the point that you can teach it to someone else.

At Home: Practice, Practice, Practice

There’s another old English proverb: practice makes perfect. There isn’t much that can prepare you for the AP chemistry test except for the test itself. It’s a three hour and fifteen minute test, broken down into a 90-minute, 60-question multiple-choice section and a 105-minute free response section.

In other words, this test is an endurance trial.

I can’t recommend enough that students take multiple practices tests before the actual test to build stamina, reduce mental fatigue, identify content areas that need more reviewing, and become familiar with the style of questions on the test.

Tell help you conquer your practice tests, and use that time effectively and efficiently, here’s a practice test plan:

Before you take your first practice test:

  1. Read sample responses to free-response questions.
  2. Practice answering some free-response questions untimed to get a feel for the process.

Keep the following in mind when practicing free response questions:

  • Read the question at least twice before attempting to answer to be sure you answer the question thoroughly.
  • If a part of a questions relies on using the answer to a previous part, use your prior results to answer it. If you couldn’t complete a previous part, make up an answer and explain what you would have done.
  • Be specific!
  • Show your work, round calculations to appropriate significant figures at the end of the problem, and use appropriate units.
  • Clearly label your axes on graphs.
  • Once you are fully familiar with the format, it’s time to…

Take a practice test! (Barron’s AP Chemistry includes plenty of practice tests for you to choose from.)

  1. Plan on taking the test under standard test conditions, which means timed and in a quiet place. Set aside an afternoon or morning to take the test, make sure you’re well-rested, and set a timer.
  2. Once you’re done, reward yourself with a break! You just took a great step toward getting a high score on test day.
  3. Grade the practice test.
    Make notes about which type of questions you’re missing. Are there specific topics that need to be explored more fully? Are there fundamentals that need to be reviewed? Make a comprehensive study guide for yourself.
  4. Review missed questions thoroughly.
    Most practice tests provide the answers and explanations. Read these and understand why you missed the question, figuring out what topic is at the heart of the question.


  1. Study problem areas from your first test.
    Dedicate time to reviewing the topics you struggled with in your practice test.
    You can find practice problems specific to those areas in your study guide or test book (or online!).
    Try approaching one topic a day instead of doing it all at once. It will most likely be multiple hours of study, so be sure to split up the studying. The key is to retain all this information, so you need to give yourself time to take it all in!
    After studying a subject, remember to quiz yourself on the material a week later to assess whether you retained the information.

Repeat! (Because each released AP exam contains a slightly different spread of topics covered, the more practice tests you take the better prepared you’ll be for the topics you’ll see on the official exam date.)

AP Chemistry can be overwhelming and frustrating, but you have all the tools to succeed. With dedication and a strong study plan, you can rock it on test day!

Depending on how you do, you should work through a prep book or hire a tutor to review test strategies and content. If you’re not sure how to proceed, give us a ring after taking a practice test; we’ll talk you through your results and give you honest and specific recommendations for getting ready.