In recent years many states, counties and cities have funded SAT and ACT testing during the school day in public schools, making the exams free for students. Sometimes, those testing programs include the optional essay sections, but sometimes they don’t. That produces a quandary for students who might be thinking about whether to apply to colleges that require the essay: Should they have to take the test all over again just to get an essay score?
Yale acknowledged the problem in announcing its new policy.
“We hope this will enable more students who participate in school-day administrations of the SAT or ACT to apply to Yale without needing to register for an additional test,” Yale said in an email to counselors.
Few schools now require applicants to take the tests with essays. Among those that do are the University of California and Stanford, Princeton, Duke and Brown universities. Most of the Ivy League has dropped the requirement. Many admission professionals say that while they highly value writing skills, the essay scores obtained from the two tests are not useful. Selective colleges typically require students to submit one or more essays with their applications, and they also look closely at performance in English classes.
The SAT essay has a complicated history. For years, students were able to submit essay scores from the College Board, which oversees the SAT, through what are now known as SAT Subject tests (a program separate from the main SAT). In 2005, the main SAT was revised to include a required essay section, and the scale for the total test changed to a maximum score of 2400. In 2016, the main SAT was overhauled again. The maximum score reverted to 1600, and the 50-minute essay section was made separate and optional from the three-hour main test.
In the high school Class of 2017, about 1.7 million students took the SAT. Seventy percent of them — 1.2 million — took it with the essay.
The essay version of the ACT — officially known as ACT with Writing — debuted in 2005. A little more than half of the 2 million ACT takers in the Class of 2017 used this option. The writing section adds 40 minutes to a test that otherwise takes about three hours.
The essay option often means added expense for students. The main SAT fee is $46 without the essay and $60 with it. The ACT fee is also $46, or $62.50 with the writing portion. Both tests provide fee waivers to students in financial need.
The College Board had no immediate comment on Yale’s action.
ACT, asked about Yale’s action, said through a spokesman: “We encourage institutions to determine which factors to emphasize and utilize in admissions decisions based on rigorous scientific research.” The spokesman noted that the English test, part of the core ACT, also assesses writing skills.
Stanford’s dean of admission and financial aid, Richard Shaw, said he is reviewing the issue. “However, we should treasure writing as an important skill in life and it should be a major focus [of] K-12,” Shaw wrote in an email. “So the question becomes what is the alternative to assessing writing competency in the admissions process.”
[Update, June 6: Princeton’s dean of admission, Janet Rapelye, said in an email about the essay test: “[W]e are seriously considering all sides of this issue. Writing is an integral part of a student’s experience here. Also, we are concerned about access to college and to testing, especially for potential applicants from low-income backgrounds.”]