Should I Write the Optional SAT or ACT Essay?

optional sat or act essay (Part 1 of this two-part series addresses whether it benefits a student to complete the essay portion of his or her standardized test.)

To write or not to write? That is the question that plagues college applicants in between band practices, soccer games, algebra quizzes, and proctored practice SAT tests. Should I elect to write the optional SAT or ACT essay? Should I spend even more time taking an already tiring test? Is it worth it?

The essay portions of the SAT and ACT are optional in the same way extra credit classwork is optional.  Much like the extra credit assignment, the essay raises its own set of questions.

  • Will the end result be worth the outlay of time and energy?
  • Could this backfire on me if the answer is no?
  • Is this something the college admissions office really wants to see or is it just another administrative hoop to jump through?
  • What is the college really looking for in my SAT or ACT essay?

A recent article by Art Sawyer called “ACT Writing and New SAT Essay Requirements” sheds light on some of the confusion. According to Sawyer, writing an essay is almost always a good idea. As he points out, “Skipping the essay can leave a student scrambling to fit in an additional test date should his or her college plans change.” He mentions that colleges often make the essay a prerequisite for superscoring (the practice of mixing and matching high scores from different testing sessions—something that can greatly benefit the student). Although the majority of colleges on Compass Education’s recent list (ACT and SAT Essay Requirements — Class of 2018 and Beyond) consider the essay optional, some top-tier schools—like Duke, Stanford, and Yale—still recommend or require it. Lastly, Sawyer says, “It’s uncommon for an ACT or SAT essay to be a significant negative factor on an application.” In other words, even if your essay score is lackluster, it is unlikely on its own to bring down an otherwise good application.

What are the college admissions folks who read your essay looking for? As with your English teacher, they are looking for unity, coherence, and excellent grammar and punctuation. They want your essay to have an appropriate tone, your argument to address the topic provided, and finally, they want to see evidence of your critical reasoning skills.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, we specialize in helping students navigate the testing process. That includes helping you with essay writing! If you need instruction or practice in any aspect of the SAT or ACT essay, we have experienced writing tutors who will work with you until you feel confident.

If you would like more information, our Client Service Directors Anne Stanley and Susan Ware are available to answer questions and provide solutions. You may reach either of them by calling A+ Test Prep and Tutoring at 215-886-9188.

Part 2 of this series will address the specifics of the well-written SAT or ACT essay. Stay tuned!

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