Colleges Drop SAT, ACT Essay: What Students Should Know

US News & World Report
By Kelly Mae Ross
September 10, 2018

Schools that no longer require essay scores from the SAT or ACT may still consider them if submitted.

Some prospective college students may now have one less thing to worry about: completing the essay component of a standardized admissions test.

Both the SAT and ACT include optional essay portions, which on the latter exam is called the ACT writing test. The vast majority of colleges do not require applicants to submit scores from these sections, and the number of those that do has shrunk over the last few months.

In July, a number of colleges said they will no longer require SAT essay or ACT writing scores from undergraduate applicants. Among the schools that made this announcement were Brown University, the California Institute of Technology, Duke University, Princeton University, Stanford University and the University of Michigan—Ann Arbor.

Earlier this year, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, the University of San Diego and Yale University also said they were dropping the requirement.

Many of the institutions say they are making this change because the essay requirement may have created a financial barrier that kept some students from applying.

A number of states, school districts and individual schools pay for their students to take the SAT or ACT during a school day. However, these subsidized tests do not always include the optional essay components. So if students want to apply to colleges that require an essay score, they would have to pay to take one of the tests with the essay component at a separate time.

“Given the significant growth in free school-day testing, it’s important to enable students from low-income families to take advantage of the tests already offered by their school districts and not place an undue burden on them to go in separately outside of normal school hours,” said Logan Powell, Brown’s dean of admission, in a July 10 statement.

Despite the relatively small number of colleges that require SAT essay or ACT writing scores, many high school students sit for these portions of the exams.

Of the more than 1.7 million 2017 high school graduates who took the SAT, about 70 percent of them completed the essay portion, according to data from the College Board. And of the roughly 2 million members of the class of 2017 who sat for the ACT, a little more than half took the optional writing component, according to a report from the ACT.

Not every school will be eliminating the essay score requirement for the 2018-2019 admissions cycle.

Applicants won’t see a change this year to the University of California system’s policy requiring ACT writing or SAT essay scores, says Henry Sánchez, a clinical professor of pathology at the University of California—San Francisco and chair of the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools, the faculty-driven committee that oversees undergraduate admissions policies for the UC system.

The committee discussed the topic with admissions directors at a July 6 meeting, but Sánchez says the process of evaluating this policy and potentially recommending any changes will take time.

“We want to make sure this is an objective, data-driven decision,” he says, “rather than jumping on the bandwagon without data.”

For prospective students trying to understand what these SAT and ACT essay policy changes mean for their college search and application process, here are a few things to keep in mind.

Completing the essay portion of a test may still be a good idea, if possible. This decision will vary from student to student, but the most risk-averse approach is to take the SAT or ACT with the essay portion, says Nat Smitobol, an admissions counselor at IvyWise, a New York-based admissions consulting company.

Even if none of the schools on a prospective student’s initial college list require an essay score, they may find one later in the process that does, he says.

Some schools that no longer require SAT or ACT essay scores will still consider them. A college’s website is the best source of information on its specific application requirements, Smitobol says.

At Duke, for instance, the submission of SAT or ACT essay scores will be “optional but recommended,” according to a July 13 news release.

On the other hand, Caltech will not consider these scores even if students submit them, according to the school’s website.

Colleges may have other writing requirements for applicants. For example, students applying to Princeton must submit a graded writing sample – preferably from an English or history class – according to the university’s website.

Brown recommends that applicants submit a graded paper from a humanities or social sciences course, according to the school’s website.

Mandee Heller Adler, founder and president of Florida-based International College Counselors, says she advises high school students to start saving their past assignments. “Students have to be on the lookout for a good graded paper that they can hold on to and then turn in to a school,” she says.