Dropping the SAT Essay

Yale follows Harvard in ending requirement that students complete writing portion of SAT or ACT. University of San Diego makes similar move, leaving only 25 colleges with the requirement. More colleges go test optional.

June 4, 2018
 

Yale University last week notified counselors who work with high school students that the university will no longer require applicants to complete the SAT essay or the ACT writing test.

A memo Yale sent to counselors said the university wanted to make the application process easier on those who take the SAT or ACT during school hours. Those administrations frequently do not give students time for the writing test, so students had to register for the test another time to complete the writing test.

The move comes three months after Harvard University announced that it was making the SAT essay or ACT writing test optional. Harvard's announcement noted that its applicants submit essays as part of their applications, so writing remains a crucial part of the application process.

While the moves by institutions such as Harvard and Yale capture attention, they reflect a more general disinclination of admissions leaders toward the writing tests of the SAT and ACT. The Princeton Review, which tracks how many colleges require the test, now identifies only 25 institutions that do so. Those that have already dropped the requirement include Columbia and Cornell Universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Pennsylvania.

The University of San Diego also recently announced it would no longer require the SAT essay or ACT writing test. Stephen Pultz, assistant vice president for enrollment management at San Diego, said via email that "we decided the writing sections were not reliable measures for placement purposes, which is how we originally envisioned their use. We’ve had better success using the other sections of the exams, Advanced Placement exams, and high school curriculum and grades."

The College Board first started offering an essay on the SAT in 2005. But many writing experts were highly critical of the format, noting among other things that it did not judge whether statements were factually correct. Les Perelman, an MIT writing professor, famously coached students on how to write ludicrous essays that would receive high scores.

In 2014, the College Board announced revisions to the SAT -- with substantial changes to the essay, including the use of writing passages to force test takers to cite evidence for opinions in their essays.

Generally, critics of the first version of the writing test agreed that the new version was better, but some continued to question whether the writing test had enough value to justify leading students to prepare for and take it. Some advocates for the essay hoped the changes would lead more colleges to rely on it as part of the admissions process. But the news from Harvard and Yale, and the lack of interest in adding the writing test as a requirement, suggests that this is not happening.

On its blog, Princeton Review said after Harvard's decision that the essays should be eliminated from the SAT and ACT. While they are theoretically optional, many students feel pressure to take them (and prepare for them), even though a very small number of colleges actually use the scores.

"While over 70 percent of students taking the SAT and more than 50 percent taking the ACT opt in to the essay, not even 2 percent of colleges require an essay score," the blog post says. "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."

The College Board did not respond to a request for comment on the Yale announcement.

While Yale still requires applicants to take either the SAT or ACT for the nonwriting parts of the exams, more colleges continue to announce that they are going test optional. Among the colleges in recent weeks announcing these policies are Concordia University (St. Paul), Prescott College and Rider University.

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