While over 70% of students taking the SAT and more than 50% taking the ACT opt in to the essay, not even 2% of colleges require an essay score.  Students and taxpayers are sending tens of millions of dollars into the College Board’s and ACT’s coffers and don’t appear to be getting anything out of it other than one more source of anxiety when it comes to college applications.  It is time for the SAT and ACT essays to go.

UPDATE (4/9/18):  Dartmouth no longer requires the SAT or ACT essay.  There are now 27 schools in the nation that require the essay.

Writing matters.

It really matters in college, where students are asked to write with a frequency and level of sophistication for which too many of them are ill-prepared. There may be no skill that matters more in the classroom than the ability to write a cogent argument with strong command of evidence and a sense of style, if not grace.

On the face of it, having students write an essay as part of the SAT and ACT seems like a good idea.  In reality, however, there is little evidence that students’ scores on the essays indicate much about how they will perform in the classroom.  We’ll get into that a little later in this post, but for now, just know that you don’t have to take our word for it when we say that the SAT essay isn’t worth a jot.  Here’s what the College Board said when they redesigned the SAT.

While the College Board remains steadfast in its commitment to the importance of analytic writing for all students, two factors have contributed to its decision to no longer make the Essay a required part of the sat. First, while the writing work that students do in the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing area of the exam is strongly predictive of college and career readiness and success, one single essay historically has not contributed significantly to the overall predictive power of the exam. Second, feedback from hundreds of member admission officers was divided: some respondents found the essay useful, but many did not. (Test Specifications for the Redesigned SAT, 2015)

In 2016, the College Board matched ACT’s policy of making the essay optional.  Before this change, many selective schools required the ACT essay, likely because SAT students were required to write an essay.  (ACT calls its essay the Writing test, which is not to be confused with the SAT’s Writing and Language section, which is multiple choice.)  After the change, schools started dropping the essay requirement for the ACT and opted not to bother with the SAT essay either.

The problem was that some of the most prominent schools in the country decided to require an essay score.  The University of California system required all applicants to its nine undergraduate campuses to submit an essay score.  Half the Ivy League–Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth–opted into the essay, and Brown joined them this past year. We always advised students to opt in to the essay since they might not know where they were applying.  We continue to offer that advice, unhappily, but it’s actually quite easy to determine whether paying more to write an essay is worth it.

And it just got easier.

As reported in The Washington Post, starting next year Harvard will no longer require submission of an SAT or ACT essay score.   This policy change doesn’t just bring the Ivy-league back into balance.  It drops the number of colleges and universities that require the SAT essay or ACT essay to 27.  (That total does not include Wellesley College and the University of Montana Western, which do not require the SAT essay but do require the essay if students submit an ACT.)  Here is the list of schools that require the essay.  I’ll explain how we arrived at it below.

Name of College/University Requiring the SAT/ACT Essay:
Brown University
California Institute of Technology
Claremont McKenna College
Duke University
Manhattan College
Martin Luther College
Princeton University
Sam Houston State University
Schreiner University
Soka University of America
Stanford University
United States Military Academy
University of California – Merced
University of California, Davis
University of California, Irvine
University of California, Los Angeles
University of California, Riverside
University of California–Berkeley
University of California–San Diego
University of California–Santa Barbara
University of California–Santa Cruz
University of Miami
University of Michigan–Ann Arbor
University of Minnesota, Morris
University of Montana Western (Only requires essay with an ACT; no essay needed with the SAT.)
University of North Texas
University of San Diego
Wellesley College (Only requires essay with an ACT; no essay needed with the SAT.)
Yale University

We arrived at this list by using the Common Data Set, which is a collaboration among the College Board, U.S. News and World Report, and Peterson’s, as our starting point.  Schools report their SAT essay and ACT writing policy as part of the data collection.  We cross-checked every school that, according to the CDS, required or recommended the essay against their website, on the assumption that if a college expected to receive an essay score, it needed to indicate as much to a student.  In some cases, we got in contact with a school’s admissions office.  We found over 100 schools that reported incorrectly to the CDS and only 27 of them (plus Wellesley and Montana Western, with their eccentric ACT policies) that required an essay of all applicants.  While we are extremely confident in the accuracy of our list, if we missed a school that requires or recommends the essay, please let us know in the comments.  Policies may change, so students, families, and counselors should confirm a school’s policy before applying.

In conversation with admissions officers at some, albeit not all, of these institutions, we have found little evidence that even they use the SAT or ACT essay as a factor in deciding whether to admit a student.  Manhattan College and the University of Miami indicate on their websites that they use the essays for course placement.

Several of the schools that recommend submission of the SAT or ACT essay also use them for placement.  In this category, we found just 31 schools.  How should a student treat a “recommendation” to submit an essay score, given that no schools appear to use the essay to determine admission? There are about twenty schools that “recommend” Subject tests, but we advise students to treat that recommendation as requirement.  It seems unlikely, however, that the same is true in the case of the essay. We hope that all schools will back off recommending the submission of an essay score, since it proves confusing for students.

Name of College/University Recommending the SAT/ACT Essay
Abilene Christian University
Albany College of Pharmacy
Amherst College
Chapman University
Eastern Illinois University
Georgia Institute of Technology
Michigan State University
Occidental College
Oregon State University
Rutgers University–Camden
Rutgers University–New Brunswick
Rutgers University–Newark
Saint Anselm College
Saint Michael’s College
Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
St. Norbert College
State University of New York at Binghamton (Binghamton University)
State University of New York–Stony Brook University
State University of New York–University at Buffalo
The University of Montana – Missoula
University of Evansville
University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Minnesota–Twin Cities Campus
VanderCook College of Music
Webb Institute
College of the Ozarks
Montana State University
Montana State University Billings
Montana Tech of the University of Montana
The University of Akron
The University of Montana-Western
Valparaiso University

Given how little demand exists for the SAT and ACT essay and that almost no schools use the essay score even when they require one, it is vexing that so many students pay $14 to do the SAT essay or $16.50 when they take the ACT. Students and families are likely afraid to opt out.  That fear generates a lot of revenue for the testing companies.

1,202,640 members of the Class of 2017 who took the SAT (about 70%) opted to do the SAT essay at least one time.  That would account for almost $17 million in revenue, although some students would have used a fee waiver (typically just over 20% of SAT test takers use a waiver on a weekend administration) and it is possible that students who took a school day administration got a discount on the $14. At the same time, some of those 1.2 million students paid for the essay more than once, so it is quite possible, likely even, that the College Board earned over $10 million dollars from a test that less than two percent of colleges require.  If we want to be generous, those 28 schools account for over just under 78,000 admitted freshmen each year, which is no small number, but a far cry from the over 1.2 million kids who write the essay.

1,090,621 members of the Class of 2017 (almost 54%) who took the ACT did the writing test.  If every student paid, the total revenue would be almost $18 million. Given the same conditions as the SAT (waivers, discounts for school day exams) we are likely talking about over $20 million going to the College Board and ACT for an essay that matters for almost no one, or perhaps absolutely no one, that completes it. 

In twelve states, taxpayers pay for students to do the essay.   In ten of those states–Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming–there are no schools that require the SAT or ACT essay.

We wonder whether the essays even matter much to the College Board and the ACT.  When the redesigned SAT was announced in 2013, the CEO of the College Board, David Coleman, made much of the new essay section.  Nowadays, it is rare to hear anyone at the College Board talk about the essay.  After two years of administering the essay, the College Board still does not report percentiles on students’ scores.  Neither students nor admissions officers have a sense of what a “good” essay score is, which creates anxiety among students even while it encourages indifference among admissions officers. The ACT writing section went through its own series of blunders trying to get its scoring right and likely destroying whatever speck of respectability it might have once enjoyed.

Neither ACT nor the College Board has done a publicly available validity study on their essays.  The validity of both exams is based on their correlation with first-year college GPA (FYGPA). The ACT Technical Manual discusses validity at great length when it comes to the Composite score, but we could find nothing in it showing the validity of the Writing test with respect to FYGPA.  The College Board also fails to provide any proof of the redesigned SAT essay’s power to predict outcomes in college.

The one validity study of the old SAT essay that is easy to find on the College Board website was published after the last redesign of the test in 2005.  It is worth noting that they felt it worthwhile then to show that the essay could have some value.  Unfortunately, what the study found was that it actually had very little.  Compare the correlations between the sections of the exam.

So what do these numbers mean?  Correlation coefficients basically show the strength of a statistical relationship between two variables, and are measured, for practical purposes, between 0 and 1 (Negative correlations exist, but it makes little sense to consider them with respect to test scores and FYGPA).  A correlation of 0 means there is no connection between the two elements  A correlation of 1 means they are in absolute agreement.

Consider height and weight.  If the correlation between them was 1.0 it would mean that the tallest person in the world would be the heaviest person in the world.  If it were 0, then it would mean the knowing the height of a person would have no predictable effect on their weight, suggesting that some babies might weigh as much as a professional basketball player.  In actuality, the correlation coefficient for height and weight is around 0.70.  Compare that number to the coefficients for the SAT.  The SAT multiple choice sections predict FYGPA fairly well, but the essay has barely any correlation with future grades at all, with a meager 0.2 correlation coefficient.  Hilariously, the essay did a worse job of predicting English Composition grades than of predicting overall GPA.  Is it any surprise that the College Board appears to be in no rush to publish a validity study of the new SAT essay?

Perhaps they will never need to, since almost every college and university in the nation has rejected the SAT and ACT essays.  The University of California system and its nine universities more or less have the power to kill the SAT and ACT essay, much like they forced the last redesign of the SAT in 2005.  We hope they do, because right now millions of students are wasting their time and money on an exercise that does nobody but the testing companies any good.

7 thoughts on “It Is Time To Eliminate the SAT and ACT Optional Essays

  1. Perhaps only 2% of college and universities require the writing/essay, but what is the ratio of students who takes the SAT/ACT and applying to those college and universities?

    1. Hi Mu,

      That’s a good question. We can’t just look at admitted students as the only people getting “value” of out of the essay. Anyone applying to one of these schools is getting some use out of the extra fee.

      Hoe many people is that? It’s hard to answer. We can’t just count the number of applicants, since many of the applicants at one school could be applying to another school and thus would be double counted. That applies in particular to the UC system. UCLA gets more applications than anyone–around 110K/year. That’s a long way from the 1.2 million students who do the essay for the SAT and 1 million for the ACT.

  2. I hear your reasons for eliminating the essay from statistics, to costs, to fear. But what I do not hear or see (and I often look) is an alternative to a writing exercise in a timed environment that measures the student’s ability to read (and understand prompt), critically think about how to respond (brainstorm…), form a cogent response that makes sense, does not have too many spelling errors, and is grammatically correct – especially in an academic setting. Is not the presence of an essay assignment based in large part from the ACT and College Board polling freshman English teachers and asking them what are the most common issues they face in their freshman classes? Reading and writing is a skill that must be trained and practiced – not unlike EVERY athletic competition students engage – and a skill that humans will need throughout their entire adult life.

    Do you have an alternative exercise or metric that could function in this same capacity?

    Application essays are often proofed – and re-written – by folks other than the student, so it is hard to think that all admissions officer reading these un-timed writings can have total faith in the “student’s work.” More importantly, what do post-secondary schools feel would/could be a better metric for writing? It must be acknowledged that writing and grammar are not taught well in US K-12 schools and the use of social media has eroded these skills even more. Headlines in the news are appalling at worse, and knee-slapping funny at best, and the ability (i.e. enough time and proper training) for journalists to proof their submissions prior to printing is a complaint levied on all levels, which then leaves papers (online or actual paper) looking uneducated when chock full of spelling errors and riddled with grammatical errors.

    I am not lobbying for or against the essay section: graduate school-level admissions tests all have these writing sections, so why is it that the SAT and ACT essays are so bad, yet, these same college graduates desiring entry into graduate programs will have an essay or 2 to complete in 30 minutes?

    I would think the Princeton Review as an organization would be on board with this type of academic hurdle, am I missing something?

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