The SAT essay has been through a lot of changes in recent years. In the new SAT, it exists as a separate section from the rest of the sections. You may have heard that not all schools require it, even the ones that require standardized test scores. Why is that? Also, just because it isn’t required, does that mean you don’t have to do it? And what’s a good essay score, anyway?
First, a few things about the SAT and ACT optional essays:
Second, the most important thing you can take away from this post is: don’t assume you need to take the SAT or ACT with the essay! The number of schools that require it is low, and fewer and fewer schools are even recommending it. In recent years, schools like the California Institute of Technology, Claremont McKenna College, and the University of Michigan have all stopped asking for it. Princeton University started asking for a graded paper instead.
In short? Unless you know you’re going to score well, based on past experience or a diagnostic test, or you’re applying to certain schools, reconsider if preparing for the ACT/SAT Essay is a good use of your test prep time or if you should just skip it altogether.
A very small number of schools outright require the SAT Essay or ACT Writing. They are:
That’s it! Of course, the University of California system is huge and includes heavy hitters like Berkeley, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and more. If you’re considering applying to any of these schools, you’ll need to take the SAT Essay. Otherwise, unless these remaining schools are on your list, you don’t explicitly need to take the essay as part of the SAT.
However, in college admissions, required isn’t the end of the line. A good number of additional schools recommend the SAT Essay. For these schools, you won’t be automatically turned away without the essay, but it’ll help your chances to have it present.
You might be surprised to learn that most of the very top schools – Harvard University, Yale University, Brown University, etc. – are not terribly interested in the SAT Essay, even though they care quite a bit about your overall SAT score (or ACT score). That’s in part because highly selective schools ask high school applicants for extensive essays, which they use to evaluate applicant’s proficiency with written English.
The colleges and universities that recommend the SAT Essay are:
If any of these schools are on your list, you should seriously consider including the essay in your SAT or ACT test prep plans. Still, there are a few things to keep in mind.
While you could, of course, make your decision about taking the SAT Essay based on the schools to which you know you’re applying, the majority of students take the SAT or ACT before they’ve finalized their college lists. For that reason, you may need to decide whether to take the essay without knowing whether you’re planning to apply to any of the above schools.
So, if you’re signing up for the SAT or ACT soon, consider the following:
The biggest advantage to taking the SAT Essay is that you cover all your bases. If you decide to apply to any of the schools on the required or recommended lists, you won’t have to go back and take it again or risk rejection for not having taken it.
Similarly, the SAT Essay can provide another data point for admissions officers about the strength of your academic profile and application—if you do well. An above-average essay or writing score can help prove your writing abilities to colleges.
On the flip side, not taking the SAT Essay at all will limit the number of schools to which you can apply and be a competitive applicant. While many selective schools do not care about the essay, some do, and they’re always looking for a reason to reject applicants. Not having an essay score could sink your application at Duke or Stanford.
The biggest potential downside to taking the SAT Essay is that you might not score well, and colleges that don’t require or recommend the essay will have a piece of information that doesn’t show you in your best light. Given that most schools don’t want the essay, having a poor SAT Essay score can be a risk that isn’t worth taking.
Another disadvantage to taking the essay or writing portion is that you’ll be in the room longer. Fortunately, both sections come at the end of their respective tests, so it won’t tire you out for the rest of the test, but knowing that you’re going to be there an extra hour can affect students’ performance on the sections that matter most.
Similarly, another advantage to not taking the Essay portion is not having to prepare for it! College Board and ACT readers are looking for very specific elements, so you’ll need to spend time preparing, just as you would for the other sections. That’s time that might be better spent on the rest of the test, schoolwork, or extracurricular activities.
Those are the big-picture considerations for whether to take the SAT Essay or ACT Writing section, but it’s also worth thinking about the specifics of your college application. Much like decisions about the SAT Subject Tests, it’s important to consider your unique application. Are you someone who should definitely take the SAT with essay? Probably? Or definitely not?
If you’re interested in any of the above colleges that have an SAT or ACT essay requirement, you should take it. It won’t be the most important factor in your application, but not having it will be a huge red flag to these schools that you’re not serious about them because you didn’t take the time to read and understand their requirements.
Require is easy; recommend is a bit more complicated. When it comes to college admissions, it’s best to take colleges at their word. So, while schools like Michigan State may not turn you away with no SAT Essay score, they’ll be disappointed you don’t have it, unless you have a compelling reason like financial hardship. Duke University in particular has dropped numerous hints that they frown upon applications without the essay section.
Note that even some test-optional schools, like Coby, recommend the SAT or ACT essay. Of course, these schools are test-optional, so you don’t need to submit any standardized test essay at all. But because they care so much about writing skills, they want to see the essay; otherwise, even if you have a very high score, they may be insufficiently impressed.
On top of that, colleges may not be the only thing you’re applying to this year! Because standardized tests play a big role in many scholarships – both offered by colleges and by external institutions – you should always check to see if any scholarships for which you’re planning to apply require you to submit SAT Essay or ACT Writing score reports.
Lastly, if you’re someone who excels in writing and feels comfortable with the SAT Essay, you might decide that taking it will boost your application! Although the essay won’t be factored into your total SAT score, it may still make a positive impact if you struggle in other areas. For some students, a writing test is something they definitely want colleges to see!
The most important thing to keep in mind about the writing sections of the SAT and ACT is that you need to do what’s best for your college goals and strategy. Remember that you don’t need to do the Essay section at every test date, so it may be that you want to take a first pass at the test and decide about the essay later. Or, you may know that it’s going to be required by one or more of your colleges, so you want to get a jump right away.
At the end of the day, wherever you’re applying, the SAT Essay or ACT Writing is just one part of your application, one that seems to hold less importance every year. While it’s important to take all parts of the process seriously, this isn’t one of the ones worth stressing about.
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