The addition of the essay portions to the SAT and ACT triggered a seismic shift in power, mostly attributable to two factors:
1. The smooth operators at ACT headquarters
2. The feckless nature of college admissions offices
How else can we explain how, after basically forcing the College Board and ACT to add writing portions to their respective tests, colleges even a decade later can’t agree on whether these essays are useful for admissions purposes or not? Some colleges require a test essay, while others merely recommend one. The largest portion of schools say they don’t need essays at all. What is a student to do?
If you are taking the SAT any time before March 2015, you have only one option: write the essay. Section 1 of the current SAT is a mandatory essay that factors into a test taker’s overall 200-800 Writing score, which makes up a third of the 600-2400 Composite score.
If you are taking the ACT, however, you have choices, thanks to those aforementioned smooth operators out of Iowa City. The canny architects of the ACT wisely chose to make the Writing Test optional. As far as ACT is concerned, you can take it or leave it. The ACT Composite score does not include the Writing score.
However, if any of your target colleges require or recommend the ACT Writing Test, then that section is pretty much mandatory for you. Make sense?
How many colleges require or recommend the ACT with Writing?
Admissions policies towards the writing portions of these tests change from year to year. Today, the general trend seems to be that the bulk of schools don’t need the Writing Test, but that more competitive schools typically require or recommend those scores.
ACT offers an amazing search tool compiling What Colleges Have Decided about the Writing Test. Using the state of New York as an example, we can scan the stated policies of 153 schools. Of these, 93 say they do not need the ACT with Writing. 26 recommend Writing and 24 require that score. Note, however, that this smaller portion of schools that require Writing include Cornell, Columbia, NYU, Fordham, Vassar, Syracuse, and most of the more competitive SUNYs. The last 10 on this list need to be contacted directly for their policies.
Consequently, if you have your sights set on admission to a highly competitive school, you’ll probably be asked to submit an ACT score with Writing.
What if I took the ACT without Writing, then decided to apply to a school that wants Writing?
Hate to be the bearer of bad news, but students may NOT simply sit for the ACT Writing Test. The only way to get to that section is through the English, Math, Reading, and Science Tests. You have to take the full ACT again and submit all the scores, not just your score on the Writing Test.
So, should I take the ACT with Writing if I don’t know exactly where I’m applying?
So glad you asked. Yes, test takers who have not excluded schools that might require or recommend the ACT should definitely register and prepare for the ACT with Writing. Nothing makes a teen less happy than hitting her target test score, only to have to take the full ACT again because she skipped Writing. We see this happen all the time. Keep your options open by sitting for the Writing Test when you take the ACT.
UPDATE: Be advised that most colleges seem to be reconsidering and sometimes spontaneously revising their essay policies in light of the imminent SAT revision. Consider this fascinating look, just published this week, on 15 colleges and 15 different policies on new writing tests. Be sure to call all your target schools directly before making a decision about the ACT Writing Test.