SAT & ACT Essay- To Take or Not To Take

The SAT and ACT essays, both the subject of many revisions and much controversy over the past few years, have reached the brink of extinction. This summer, many of the last holdouts – elite schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Duke – dropped the essay as an application requirement, leaving only the California state schools requiring the SAT/ACT essay. As students get their PSAT and PreACT scores back and start to plan for their first test dates, many students are asking “Should I take the SAT/ACT essay at all?” And if they take it, should they prepare for it much, if at all?
For most students, the answer to both questions is “no.” If the schools to which students are applying list the essay as “optional,” then it is truly optional: colleges will use the personal application essay or a graded essay from school as indicators of applicants’ writing ability. It feels funny and/or negligent to completely omit a section of the SAT or ACT, but the truth is, in almost all cases, the essay does not matter anymore. Even if students do complete and submit an ACT/SAT essay, its role in the application process is so small that the essay likely won’t play any role in whether an applicant is admitted.
So who should take the essay? There are a couple of situations in which taking the essay makes sense. First, if a student is an excellent writer and thinks that they can achieve a top score on the essay (20 or above on the SAT or 10 or above on the ACT), they should take the essay and submit the score. Just because the essay is optional doesn’t mean that colleges won’t look at it at all, so a good score can still be a benefit to an application. The situation you want to avoid is one in which the student just gets an average or decent score; such a score will not improve one’s application at all, and while it won’t hurt one’s application, either, it will just be a waste of time.
Secondly, some schools still do “recommend” the SAT/ACT essay: examples include Duke, Colby, Amherst, and Stanford. In these cases, students should still plan to complete and submit the essay, even though it will play a minimal to infinitesimal role in the admissions process. Students really don’t even need to worry about their scores in these cases, as long as the scores are average/solid (i.e. an 8 or above on the ACT essay, or a 16 or above on the SAT essay). The essay submission is just a box to check, and odd as it sounds, the score doesn’t really matter unless it is either excellent or terrible. Here is a list of colleges and their respective policies on SAT/ACT submission, so you may want to check whether schools to which you plan to apply “recommend” the essay.
Overall, though, the good news is that most students just don’t need to worry about these essays anymore. In an increasingly complicated college process, having one less thing to do is definitely for the best.
We hope you enjoyed an excellent holiday season and Winter Break.