The Washington Post recently published an article which reported that many states which provide funding for free in-school test prep programs at public high schools have begun to cut instruction on the SAT and ACT Essay from their courses. Additionally, a percentage of these states also subsidize the fees that students pay to the College Board and ACT to sign up for testing, and test states have begun to eliminate the payments for the additional fee required to sign up for the essay portions of the SAT and ACT. These changes were spurred by a slew of reports stating that a growing number of colleges no longer require students to take the essay on either test, and that fewer and fewer schools request the essay or will consider the essay score in their admissions decisions. Pundits and commentators have jumped to the conclusion that the essay is on its way out on the SAT and the ACT, with one test prep company executive writing an op-ed in the LA Times to support a bill currently under consideration in the California legislature which would force public universities in California to refuse to consider the essay score in admissions.
What these pundits and politicians have missed is that the essay on the SAT or the ACT is still used in admissions, but not in the way they realize. While more and more colleges and universities have made submitting an essay score optional, while others do not consider the score at all, the essay itself is as important in the admissions process as it has ever been. Instead of being concerned with the essay score, most admissions officers want the essay itself as an additional writing sample.
Consider that for many colleges, especially those who utilize the Common App, the only writing sample that they receive from most students in the college application essay. The Common App recently released the essay prompts to the public, even though students will not be able to begin to fill out their applications until August at the earliest. The Common App released the prompts because many students begin to work on their application essays during junior year, whether on their own, in their English class, or in a junior year college counseling class. These students will have had over six months to prepare their application essays with guidance and feedback from peers, teachers, college counselors, and parents. One should expect that the application essay that a student submits to colleges will be polished and perfected by then.
Some colleges do require supplemental writing samples, which are usually short, single-paragraph responses to specific questions about the college in question. These short writing samples should also be prepared, edited, and revised well in advance of submitting an application. This is why so many admissions officers appreciate the SAT and ACT essays. Admissions officers know that a student wrote an SAT or ACT essay on the spot, with no foreknowledge of the question or prompt, and completed the assignment with no help of any kind. Often, combined with the more polished application essay and short supplements, these different writing samples can help admissions officers understand the writing style and voice of the student.
Given the pressure that the College Board and ACT are under from state governments on one side and colleges and universities on the other, it is possible that both organizations will drop the essay from their tests during the next re-write of the tests. The College Board and ACT each added the essay in 2005 after years of pressure from the University of California system and the Ivy League schools. Should they choose to drop the essay, it will be due to pressure from the same sources. In the meantime, college admissions officers will continue to use the essays as additional writing samples, and students who do not take the essay might possibly find themselves at a slight disadvantage compared to students who do take the essay.