By Ryan Hickey, Managing Editor of Petersons & EssayEdge
There have been a number of changes in testing since a group of American universities formed the College Entrance Examination Board, which cooked up the first standardized exam in 1901. On the original test, several of the questions involved Advanced Latin Composition and translating Cicero. In 1926, a more modern version of the SAT was refined out of an intelligence test given to Army recruits. And an even more recognizable SAT was established in 1952 when the verbal sections we know and love were formed: reading comprehension, analogies, antonyms and sentence completion questions.
The test continues to evolve every few years as times change. The last major development was in 2005 when the analogies portion was removed and the reading comprehension and math sections were expanded. Another aspect of the test that was added in 2005 was an essay section involving a specific prompt that test takers would use to develop responses.
The trouble is, essay scoring is not as quantifiable as the other elements. It is partially subjective. Scoring was based on an assessor’s idea of how complex a student presented an argument and how that argument was supported. And furthermore, (after assessment) it turned out that these essays didn’t make a good predictive measure for college success.
That’s why, for their much-anticipated 2016 update of the SATs, The College Board announced they were doing away with the mandatory nature of the essay portion.
On their website, The College Board offered their reasoning, saying, “a single essay has not contributed to the overall validity of the assessment.”
College admissions officers began to cool to the idea of the impromptu essay relatively immediately, back in 2005. “As a predictor of student success, a 25-minute essay isn’t going to tell us a great deal,” said Stephen J. Handel, associate vice president of undergraduate admissions for the University of California. And MIT writing instructor Les Perelman calls it “a completely artificial and unnatural piece of writing.” For what it’s worth, in my own tutoring of the SAT essay section, I also suggest a basic “template” that anyone can generally follow sentence by sentence to SAT essay success. Remember that readers have to go through these rapidly and are looking for specific indicators. So, if it’s that easy to “trick” the system, how useful can it be?
The Competitive Edge
It’s possible that there was another impetus to dump the mandatory essay other than general criticism: competition. The ACT (which has an optional essay section) began to surpass the SAT in total test takers starting in 2013. Every test wants to be popular, and today, an increasing number of schools are no longer relying on any testing at all.
In July, when the University of Pennsylvania announced that it was no longer requiring the essay portion of the SAT as part of its admissions qualifications, it started a cascade of other schools that followed in a similar direction. Cornell and Columbia were among them. Penn’s vice dean and director of admissions, Yvonne Romero DaSilva, said the decision was based on a number of considerations. “Our internal analysis showed that the essay component of the SAT was the least predictive element of the overall writing section of the SAT.” This made the additional stress of preparing for the essay portion a waste of time. However, she was quick to add, “Not requiring the essay is in no way a reflection that writing is not a critical skill,” but rather that the university felt writing skill was well represented in grades from English courses and the essays that students already have to submit for their applications.
So why don’t they just cut the section completely?
Many feel that the essay section is still a viable way for someone with particular writing ability to shine, and therefore, they are not so swift to let go. Harvard is still hedging and currently requires either an SAT or ACT essay writing score to be submitted as part of the application process. But Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Rachael Dane is quoted as saying, “Over the next few years, we will carefully study how predictive an element the overall writing section of the SAT is as it relates to academic work at Harvard.”
Is this making the test more fair?
The SAT has been under fire for being racially biased and classist. The hope is that these new reforms will do something to level the playing field. Penn’s John McLaughlin, senior associate director for research and analysis, said in a press release that he believes removing the essay requirement may benefit first-generation Latinos and black applicants who are statistically less likely to “have complete testing profiles,” and who can “now meet our testing requirements.” This will do wonders to make the school more diverse and accessible.
Should I write the essay or just forget it?
At this point there are many schools that still require the SAT essay. I recommend that students still prepare for (and go through with) writing an essay for the SATs with the understanding that it might not be necessary for the school of their choice. Do I think it now has a reduced role and your time might be better served working on algebra? At this point, that’s very possible. But should you ditch the essay entirely? Not so fast.
About the Author
Ryan Hickey is the Managing Editor of Petersons and EssayEdge and is an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL; editing essays and personal statements; and consulting directly with applicants.