To Write or Not to Write: Re-evaluating the Standardized Test Essay

Last updated May 7, 2021 

to-write-or-not-to-write-college-essayYou will find yourself contemplating two writing challenges during the college application process: the college application essay and the SAT/ACT essay.

Occasionally lumped together, these two essays are assigned for different purposes. Furthermore, while the college application essay is not likely to go away any time soon, the SAT/ACT essay’s future is much less certain.

A college application essay paints a portrait of you, Elizabeth Exceptional. According to Rachel Toor from The New York Times, “Your goal is to write an essay that makes someone fall in love with you.”

“Explore the real subject,” she says. “This is who I am.”

The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) rates admission essays as “moderately important,” noting that they “can serve as another indicator of English proficiency in addition to offering information about student experiences and academic interests.”

Although the NACAC rating does not specifically exclude SAT or ACT essays, it is significant that standardized test essays have little to do with revealing the personality or interests of the writer. In fact, The College Board describes SAT essay as “a typical college writing assignment in which you’re asked to analyze a text.”

If the ability to analyze text doesn’t seem to be what NACAC thinks schools value the most from student writing samples, is producing an SAT/ACT essay worth the extra effort, time, and money?

One factor that can help you decide is whether the schools on your list actually want to see the essay portion of the test. Many schools—top schools, too—do not require it. Brown University just dropped its essay requirement, joining Ivy League heavy-hitters such as Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, and Cornell.

According to a recent article in The Washington Post, schools are dropping the SAT/ACT essay requirement for different reasons. Some schools worry that requiring the SAT/ACT essay may discourage low income students from applying since the fee waivers that cover their test fees don’t always cover the essay portion. A short timed piece also does not necessarily reflect what type of writing a student is capable of producing for a college course. Therefore, it’s not surprising that only about half of ACT test takers complete the essay.

So, should you do the SAT/ACT essay or not? As with most decisions in your academic life, consider your specific needs rather than general recommendations. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What exactly does the school of my choice want? There are some gray areas between required and not required. Compass Prep notes that some schools who do not require the essay nevertheless “recommend” it. Art Sawyer explains, “Stanford changed their SAT/ACT essay position from ‘required’ to ‘strongly recommended’, which most applicants will interpret as ‘expected’.” Also make sure the essay is not tied to any other admissions criteria—there are colleges that will not superscore without it.
  • Am I a happy marathoner? Will the extra 40 or 50 minutes spent composing and editing an SAT/ACT essay push you over the endurance edge? Or can you easily expend the effort?
  • Is writing one of my strengths? Do you expect to shine in the essay? Or is your highest ambition to get something on paper that will not destroy a school’s previously favorable opinion of you? Rather than just taking a shot in the dark, you should know whether the finished essay is likely to burnish or tarnish your image.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our focus is always on you. Our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. 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.

Photo credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters


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