The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brown University becomes latest college to drop SAT, ACT essay for applicants

Applicants to Brown University will no longer be required to take the essay portion of the SAT or ACT. (Steven Senne/AP)

Brown University this week became the latest school to stop requiring prospective students to take SAT and ACT essay tests, joining a burgeoning list of selective colleges and universities that have eliminated the requirement this year.

Brown was the last Ivy League school to require the writing assignment. Princeton University dropped the requirement earlier this month. Fewer than 25 schools now mandate students to submit essay scores as part of their college applications, according to some estimations.

Brown officials said the essay requirement may pose an impediment to students from low-income families. Students with lesser means often take advantage of free SAT testing offered during the school day at nearly 8,000 schools across the country, according to the university.

But the free offerings don’t always include the writing portion of the exam, which university officials feared could dissuade students from applying to schools that require it.

“It’s important to enable students from low-income families to take advantage of the tests already offered by their school districts and not place an undue burden on them to go in separately outside of normal school hours,” Logan Powell, Brown’s dean of admission, said in a news release. “Our goal is that for any talented student interested in Brown, the application process is not a deterrent.”

Brian Clark, a university spokesman, said Brown will continue to assess students’ writing abilities based on how they fare in writing-intensive high school classes and through college application essay questions.

“Standardized test performance is only one point of measurement, and we look at a wide range of factors when considering each applicant for admission,” he said.

Applicants may still voluntarily submit essay scores, and the university encourages students to submit a graded paper from a humanities or social sciences class when they apply.

The essay tests emerged more than a dozen years ago in hopes they would reshape college admission testing and offer a tool to measure a student’s potential.

The College Board, which runs the SAT, mandated a 25-minute writing assignment in addition to the main test 13 years ago and raised the maximum total score to 2400. The company overhauled the test in 2016, reverting to a top score of 1600 and scoring an optional 50-minute essay separately.

Zach Goldberg, a College Board spokesman, said in an email the redesigned SAT still requires students to demonstrate writing skills. In the writing and language portion of the test, students are asked to read passages and answer multiple-choice questions about how or if the text should be revised.

“Everyone agrees that writing essays and developing extensive research projects are essential for college readiness and success,” Goldberg said. “We believe that the SAT Essay provides a strong complement to the multiple-choice section by asking students to demonstrate reading, analysis, writing, and critical thinking skills in the context of analyzing a provided source text.”

The ACT’s 40-minute essay has always been optional and doesn’t factor into the test’s main score, which is 36. Wayne Camara, the ACT’s Horace Mann research chair, said the company acknowledges the essay has drawbacks and upsides — it doesn’t measure other types of writing, such as longer pieces students may develop over time, but Camara said it does offer colleges and universities a way to compare students across schools.

“Colleges, universities certainly have freedom to decide what measures they want to use to evaluate candidates for admissions,” he said, adding about 50 percent of students who take the ACT opt for the writing assignment. “We always felt that the essay has benefits and limitations.”