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Princeton and Stanford drop requirements for essay testing

Princeton University in New Jersey. (Mark Makela for The Washington Post)

Princeton and Stanford universities on Thursday became the latest prominent schools to stop requiring aspiring students to submit an essay score from the ACT or SAT.

Stanford’s dean of admissions and financial aid, Richard Shaw, said in an email that the school would “strongly recommend” that applicants submit an essay score from one of the two admissions tests. But the mandate is gone, starting with students who apply for entry in 2019. Shaw said the university in California’s Silicon Valley will seek alternative methods to promote good writing.

Princeton, the Ivy League university in New Jersey, added a twist to its policy shift: All applicants must submit a graded writing sample from high school. It would prefer that work be in English or history.

Stanford is the nation’s most selective research university. It received more than 40,000 applications for the class entering this year and admitted fewer than 5 percent. Princeton, with about 35,000 applicants, admitted fewer than 6 percent.

Every year, millions of students take the SAT or ACT. The core portion of each test — a multiple-choice format — takes about three hours. Both have an optional essay. Some elite schools have required students to submit an essay score with their testing results. But recently, several have dropped that requirement. Among them are Harvard and Yale universities and Dartmouth College.

Another big-name university drops SAT/ACT essay requirement

In recent years, a growing number of states and school systems have paid for their students to take the SAT or ACT during the school day. Some of those contracts include the optional essay, and some don’t. That creates a dilemma for students who don’t get a chance to take the essay version in school: Should they be required to retake the test with the essay?

Taking the test with the essay costs more — up to $17 more for the SAT and up to $16.50 more for the ACT.

More high schools offer free college admission testing. But there’s a catch.

Princeton alluded to this issue in its statement Thursday.

“With this policy, Princeton aims to alleviate the financial hardship placed on students, including those who have the opportunity to take the test without writing during the school day and for free,” Princeton said.

Brown University is now the only Ivy League school to require an SAT or ACT essay score. Elsewhere, others still requiring an essay score include Duke University and the University of California.

But on the whole, elite college and universities are delivering a clear verdict: Most no longer believe an essay score is essential for screening applicants.

Last month, the University of Chicago dropped its SAT/ACT testing requirement entirely. It became the highest-ranked research university to join the test-optional movement.

Princeton is likely to draw attention with its new requirement for a graded writing assignment. That appears to be an unusual mandate among the ranks of top universities.

“This is a good move, though of course a HS graded essay can also be gamed and will be reflective of privilege (e.g. access to tutoring) too,” test-preparation consultant Adam Ingersoll wrote in a tweet.

The nonprofit College Board, based in New York, oversees the SAT. The nonprofit ACT is based in Iowa.

Last month, the College Board had no comment when Yale dropped its essay-score requirement. The ACT said at the time: “We encourage institutions to determine which factors to emphasize and utilize in admissions decisions based on rigorous scientific research.” An ACT spokesman noted that its multiple-choice English test, one of four sections in the core ACT, also assesses writing skills.

The College Board launched the modern version of the SAT essay in 2005, making it a required section on the core test and changing the maximum score on the test to 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.

In the high school Class of 2017, about 1.7 million students took the SAT. Seventy percent — 1.2 million — took it with the essay. Many of those essay-writers were doing so just in case they wound up applying to a college that would require it.

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 the option. The writing section adds 40 minutes to the main ACT.