There’s a burning question among students aiming for admission to elite colleges: Do you have to take the essay portion of admission tests even if those essays are technically “optional”?
The University of Pennsylvania and some others are now saying: No, you don’t.
The issue arose after the College Board announced that it would roll out a new version of the SAT in March 2016. Among other changes, the essay portion of the SAT will become optional. The ACT, the other major admission test, also has an optional essay.
In years past, many elite colleges hit upon a formula for the testing mandate: They required applicants to submit scores from either the SAT (which since 2005 has included a mandatory essay) or the ACT with writing.
Even so, there has been some debate in the admission world about the value of the essays on the two tests.
On Thursday, U-Penn. said it would not require applicants to take the SAT’s optional essay when the revised test debuts. In addition, it will no longer require applicants to take the ACT’s “optional” essay.
“Not requiring the essay is in no way a reflection that writing is not a critical skill,” said Yvonne Romero DaSilva, vice dean and director of admissions for the private Ivy League university in Philadelphia. She said U-Penn. will gauge writing through other essays included with applications and through the record of students in high school language and literature courses.
DaSilva said U-Penn. hopes the shift in its requirements will make the application process a bit “less stressful and more accessible.”
Two other Ivy League schools have announced a similar policy on the “optional” essay.
Cornell University says it will not require the revised SAT essay. Nor will it require the ACT essay.
Columbia University says it will not require the revised SAT essay. It will continue to require the ACT essay for students applying for the class that enters in fall 2016, but it will drop that requirement the following year.
The College Board is keeping track of requirements for the SAT essay at schools around the country. See those requirements here.
Some schools are ditching the SAT and ACT requirements altogether because they worry that the tests are a barrier for some disadvantaged students. The latest, this week, is George Washington University in the nation’s capital.