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.

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