It’s time to say farewell to the SAT and ACT essays for good. For the past few years, the essay sections have hung by a thread—and the College Board's recent decision to discontinue the SAT's optional essay section means there's a good chance ACT will soon follow suit and scrap its essay section, too.
The College Board's decision was no surprise, as the SAT's optional essay section had become increasingly unpopular. In June 2020, the University of California announced a change to its admissions policies that was a sign of more widespread changes to come. As part of the UC system’s plans to phase out SAT/ACT requirements, the SAT essay score and ACT writing score would no longer be used for admissions decisions. UC President Janet Napolitano’s recommendation to the UC Board of Regents echoed a common refrain, calling the essay “an unnecessary time and cost burden for students.”
Before last year's decision, UC campuses made up the majority of institutions still requiring SAT/ACT essay scores. Even though the College Board and ACT revamped their essay sections about five years ago in an attempt to maintain their relevance and better predict college performance, numerous top-ranked universities—including all Ivy League schools in 2018—dropped their essay requirements in recent years.
Some schools have cited the added cost of the essay section, a financial barrier that can prevent some students from applying, as their primary reason for eliminating the essay requirement. Others have asserted that essay scores are less reliable than grades and AP exams in assessing students’ writing abilities and predicting college performance. Year after year, the number of schools requiring essay scores has dwindled, and the UC system’s latest move seemed to have sound the essay’s final death knell.
Currently, fewer than 10 institutions still require or recommend that students submit essay scores for admissions or placement purposes. In fact, we predict that with most schools having transitioned away from the essay and with the College Board discontinuing the SAT essay, it’s likely the ACT will no longer offer the essay at all in coming years.
Schools that still require or recommend essay scores:
- United States Military Academy
- Martin Luther College
- Molloy College
- Soka University of America
- University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
- University of Montana Western
- Abilene Christian University (recommended)
It’s a safe assumption that these colleges and universities will soon end up dropping their essay requirements as well.
But keep in mind that there's a gray area: most schools not requiring the essay have not stated whether they will still consider essay scores if students choose to submit them. This includes schools like Duke, Harvard, and Stanford.
What does this mean for students?
As always, students should talk to their college counselors about how changing admissions requirements affect their individual testing plans. If you're unsure about a school's policies toward essay scores, it's also a good idea to contact the college's admissions office directly, especially during this time of transition, when policies may be changing or not clearly stated on schools' websites.
A few other considerations:
- If a student knows the schools they're applying to don't look at essay scores, the essay section is likely not worth the added time and cost. Why extend an already long testing experience for a score that won't matter?
- However, if a student has not yet finalized their college list, it may still be better to sit for the essay, just to be safe. If there's any possibility you may apply to one of the few schools requiring or recommending the essay, we recommend getting the essay out of the way the first time you sit for the ACT. Having to squeeze in another test date for the sole purpose of taking the essay can cause unneeded stress later on.
- It's common for students to perform adequately on the essay without significant effort and preparation. Furthermore, even the most competitive schools accept students with a relatively wide range of essay scores, meaning it's quite possible to achieve a satisfactory score with minimal preparation
—and the essay is not likely to have a significantly negative impact on a student's chances of admission.
Need more individualized advice?
The recommendations above are general suggestions. If you have specific questions, reach out to our experts here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.
ArborBridge is the global leader in innovative, digital, one-on-one tutoring. With nearly a decade of experience teaching students online, ArborBridge supports students of all kinds: home schoolers, AP students, test preppers, and more. Our tutors specialize in creating personalized plans and in providing compassionate support for students and families.