Ethical College Admissions: Harvard's Shift on the SAT

Jim Jump considers the implications of the university's decision to stop requiring the essay portion of the test.

March 26, 2018
Image of the Harvard seal

“When Harvard itches, everyone scratches.”

We may be about to test that hypothesis. Last week the Harvard University admissions office announced that applicants will no longer be required to submit the essay portion from the SAT or ACT. Students applying to Harvard will still be required to submit essays as part of the application, but not the essay attached to either standardized test.

It is too early to know what the Harvard announcement means. Is it foreshadowing, the admissions equivalent of a minor character on a television medical drama who innocently coughs before the first commercial break and is guaranteed to be on life support by the second commercial break?

Other prestigious institutions, including MIT, Penn, Columbia and Cornell, have previously stopped requiring the SAT or ACT with essay. Is Harvard’s joining them a harbinger that the pencils used to take the SAT or ACT may not be the only things that are numbered?

The more interesting question is whether Harvard’s announcement regarding the essay is an isolated institutional decision or part of a larger debate about the role that standardized testing plays -- and should play -- in the college admissions process. In the past 10 to 15 years, the SAT itself has undergone two radical changes -- almost as many changes as what the A in SAT stands for.

But are the changes driven by educational philosophy or market share? The answer is probably both, reflecting the College Board’s split personality between membership organization and corporate manufacturer of college admission tests.

The addition of an essay to the SAT was part of the 2005 change to the test, and the ACT added an essay at the same time in response to the change in the SAT. The new version of the SAT that year, which added a third section and changed the score from a 1600 scale to a 2400 scale (although everyone I know still used the 1600 scale), was on one hand an attempt to align the test with what students were being taught in school; several stories at the time postulated that the College Board was trying to establish a national curriculum. The addition of an essay was a strong message about the importance of writing in the curriculum.

On the other hand, the “new and improved” 2005 SAT was also an attempt to hold on to the College Board’s largest client, the University of California system, following a 2001 speech by UC president Richard Atkinson recommending that the UC system begin requiring standardized tests that measure subject mastery rather than aptitude. Atkinson was probably personally responsible for the end of analogies as a type of test question, something some of us still mourn.

The addition of an essay to the SAT was far from a popular and critical hit. The third section added nearly an hour to the testing time, turning the SAT into a test of stamina as much as academic aptitude or knowledge. It made the test more expensive. But there were also significant critiques of the essay format itself.

Some argued that a 25-minute essay written in response to a prompt the student has never seen before does not measure in any meaningful way the kind of writing that students in college are expected to produce. A related criticism was that the essay format encouraged and rewarded the bland five-paragraph essay.

A more substantial criticism concerned how the essays were graded, with two independent contractors spending two or three minutes per essay to give a grade on a one-to-six scale and graders who read the most essays per hour receiving a bonus. All of my students seemed to get a combined score of eight to 11, no matter how good or poor a writer they were. Consistency of grading has also recently been an issue for the ACT essay.

The person most responsible for the end of the 2005 essay format is Les Perelman, now retired as director of Writing Across the Curriculum at MIT. Perelman did research showing a strong correlation between length of essay and good score. He also argued that use of big words tended to be rewarded (“myriad” and “plethora” were his favorites), and criticized the College Board for not caring about the content of essays, such that a student could assert that the War of 1812 started in 1953 and receive full credit.

Soon after David Coleman’s appointment as president of the College Board in 2012, Perelman’s work caught Coleman’s attention. Coleman had been the primary architect behind the development of the Common Core standards, and his appointment to the CB came at a time when the SAT was losing market share to the ACT and the battleground between the two was becoming state assessments rather than college admission testing. Coleman’s hiring was viewed by some observers as evidence that the College Board planned to become the primary vendor for Common Core assessment.

When the College Board decided to implement the most recent overhaul of the SAT, the third section, which included the essay, was dropped, and the essay became optional. More significantly, the nature of the essay was changed from taking a position on a prompt to analyzing an argument in a reading passage and citing evidence to support the student’s argument. It’s a much better assessment of how well a student can write persuasively, and for those of us who believe that good writing is good thinking, how well a student can think.

The question is how much value it adds to a student’s application. That depends on whether colleges are actually using the essays from the SAT or ACT in any meaningful way. Those essays can certainly offer a control for admissions officers worried about how much outside help and editing is taking place on application essays. But if students are paying $14 or $16 extra for the essay section and the essay section is not being used in the admission evaluation, then colleges should no longer require students to submit. As a counselor I’d love to have a better handle on how many colleges actually utilize the SAT or ACT essays.

It will be interesting to see whether other colleges follow Harvard’s lead. It will also be interesting to see how the testing agencies respond. More than a million students annually take the SAT with the optional essay, and that represents something like $15 million in revenue.

We’ve recently seen the College Board rather aggressively try to protect market share by impeaching the value of high school grades and test-optional policies. Is “research” on the validity of the SAT essay compared with admission essays next? Or will we see a College Board marketing campaign featuring a character resembling the actor and rapper Ice-T promoting the value of the SAT with optional essay using the nom de plume “Essay-T”?


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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