Now, many colleges say time’s up for those exams. With a few notable exceptions, the consensus in higher education is that the tests are becoming an afterthought even though hundreds of thousands of high school students still take them every year as one of the grinding rituals on the road to college.
One by one, major schools this year are dropping their requirements for prospective students to submit an essay score from the national testing services. Princeton and Stanford universities last week became the latest to end the mandate, following Dartmouth College and Harvard and Yale universities.
Those schools are dropping the requirement because they wanted to ensure that the extra cost of essay testing did not drive applicants away. Others have resisted requiring the essays because they doubted the exercise revealed much.
It is a remarkable and humbling fall for an initiative that arose little more than a dozen years ago with the hope of reshaping college admission testing, offering a tool to measure student potential on a massive scale, using just pencil, a prompt and lined sheets of paper.
Fewer than 25 schools now require the essay scores, according to some tallies, including nine in the University of California system. Brown University, as of Friday, was the lone holdout in the Ivy League.
“I guarantee you it’s on the way out entirely,” said Charles Deacon, dean of admissions at Georgetown University.
A longtime skeptic of the timed-writing exercises, Deacon said he never considers the essay scores when reading applications. “Just didn’t make any difference to us,” he said.
But Janet Rapelye, Princeton’s dean of admission, said she finds the scores helpful and sometimes reads the essay that yielded the score (colleges can view them) when she wants to know more about an applicant. “It’s actually a very good test,” she said. But the university dropped the requirement, she said, out of concern that testing costs or logistical issues would deter some students from applying.
Students are still welcome to send in essay scores, Rapelye said, but the university will now require applicants to send a graded sample of high school writing, preferably in English or history.
“We really value writing,” Rapelye said. “It’s a required part of our curriculum. We want to be able to assess a student’s ability before they get to us.”
The SAT and ACT essays have proved controversial since they were launched at the urging of higher education leaders who wanted a more nuanced approach to testing than filling in bubbles on a multiple-choice score sheet.
The College Board, which oversees the SAT, added a mandatory 25-minute writing assignment to the main test 13 years ago and raised the maximum total score to 2400. But that version flopped.
In a 2016 overhaul, the SAT’s top score reverted to 1600. The essay was retained, but the time for it was lengthened to 50 minutes. It was made optional and scored separately.
The format calls for students to read a given text – one example the College Board posted online is a short piece exploring the problem of light pollution in the night sky – and then write an analysis of how the author builds an argument to persuade the audience. The College Board said it is meant to resemble a “typical college writing assignment.”
The ACT’s essay, optional from the start, is a 40-minute assignment scored separately from the other sections of the test. The prompt presents a complex issue, gives students three perspectives on it and asks them to develop their own take, with reference to one or more of the other viewpoints. The essay does not factor into the main ACT score of a maximum 36.
Versions of the tests that include the essay cost $16.50 to $17 more per student, though fee waivers are available in cases of financial need.
In the high school Class of 2017, about 1.1 million students took the ACT with its essay, slightly more than half of the total tested. About 1.2 million took the essay option with the SAT, or 70 percent of that exam’s total group.
Many take the essay version because their states or school systems provide it to students free during the school day. Others do it on the advice of counselors or parents who want students to have the essay scores just in case they apply to one of the few colleges that require or recommend them.
Without doubt, the essay tests inject more anxiety into the annual frenzy over selective college admissions. Students who excel on the main SAT or ACT but get middling essay scores often fret about whether they should take the whole test over again or how colleges will view the scores and subscores they get from multiple tries.
What the essay scores mean can be confusing. Each SAT essay, for example, gets three scores on a scale of 2 to 8. The three scores are meant to reflect skill in the quality of reading, analysis and writing that a student displays in response to a written text. They are not meant to be combined. But students do so anyway.
One anonymous user of the online forum College Confidential reported getting a perfect 1600 on the SAT – but 15 out of a possible 24 on the essay. That was “very surprising,” the user wrote, “because I’m a pretty good writer.” The user, aiming for the Ivy League, wondered whether it would be advisable to take the SAT again just to get a better essay score.
Another user reported taking about 10 practice essay tests, getting high marks from a tutor every time, before taking the real thing. “So how did I get a 15?” the user asked.
Selective colleges don’t need essay scores to find evidence of writing skill.
They ask what grades students earned in English and whether their classes were at an advanced level. They scrutinize teacher recommendations. They read personal essays students send with applications – mindful that those are often heavily edited. And they note scores applicants receive on the ACT or SAT in multiple-choice assessments of reading comprehension, grammar, rhetoric and other language skills.
The College Board and ACT contend that their essay tests remain useful.
“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 College Board said in a statement.
Marten Roorda, chief executive of ACT, said that for many reasons, the personal essays students submit with their applications do not provide a “valid and reliable” assessment of writing skill. “The ACT writing test can do that,” Roorda said in a statement. “It is standardized, comparable, and reliable and can provide a lot of useful information for improvement.”
Stanford’s dean of admission and financial aid, Richard Shaw, said in an email that his university will “strongly recommend” essay scores even though it will no longer require them.
Most public universities, including the state flagships in Maryland and Virginia, do not require essay scores. The University of California, a major exception, was one of the main advocates for the SAT essay before its launch in 2005.
Duke University’s dean of admissions, Christoph Guttentag, said he relies heavily on personal essays that applicants submit. “It’s a singular opportunity for students to take some time and present themselves to us,” he said. “There’s real value in that.”
But what personal essays reveal about writing skill is inconsistent, he said, because the advice and support students receive in preparing applications varies widely. That’s one reason Duke also is one of the few to require an SAT or ACT essay score. Last week, however, Guttentag said Duke’s policy is under review.