Is the short but contentious era of writing samples on the SAT and ACT drawing to an ignominious close? Sure looks like it. Today’s high schoolers might not realize that a test essay is a 21st century amendment, one that seemed improbable and ill-fitting at its inception in 2005. Nonetheless, early versions of the SAT and ACT essay provided some useful college admissions data, but even those benefits became dubious during the last few years of confusing test revisions.
Today, both the SAT and ACT include optional writing assignments. However, the number of schools that require or recommend the essay has plummeted precipitously. Back in April of 2018, Harvard and Dartmouth dropped their essay requirements. This past summer, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and Brown followed suit, closing out the Ivy Leagues. At this point, fewer than 20 of this nation’s 2,600 or so accredited four-year colleges and universities ask for SAT or ACT essay scores. We have dropped well below critical mass.
Don’t expect the essay to rally in the hearts and minds of admissions decision makers. Inside Higher Ed commissioned two surveys on attitudes regarding college admissions policies, college recruitment, Advanced Placement courses, and writing tests on the SAT and ACT. The first survey polled 599 college admissions and enrollment-management officials and revealed some telling insights into interest in the test essays:
- Most college admissions leaders don’t value these writing tests. Only 12% said the SAT essay offers insight into applicants, and 13% said they get insights from the ACT essay.
- Three quarters of the college-admissions leaders said they think the essay portions of the two exams should be dropped.
- Half of the admissions directors in the survey said they think evaluating a graded high school paper would be more valuable to them than the writing portion of the SAT or ACT. Some colleges are starting to accept graded papers instead of essays from the standardized admissions exams.
Interestingly, 55% of the high school counselors polled in the second survey said the ACT and SAT essays provide good information about students’ writing ability. I agree that these essays can teach important points about analytical or persuasive writing. Where they fail, however, is in providing data that improves admissions decisions, which is the primary function of college entrance exams.
With so many compelling reasons–from cost to time to overall stress–to ignore the SAT and ACT essays, I find no reason to recommend that portion of the tests to any of our students. College Board and ACT should pull their collective heads out of the sand and pay attention to what their primary (colleges) and secondary (students) customers are telling them. The writing is on the wall: time to entirely eliminate the SAT and ACT essays.