In days of yore, the SAT essay was very different. For starters, it was a required portion of the exam, scored as part of the writing section. You had a measly 25 minutes to give and support your opinion on such deep philosophical issues as the importance of privacy or whether people perform better when they can use their own methods to complete tasks.
Things are very different now. Along with the SAT itself, the SAT essay has been completely revamped and revised. Among other things, it is now an optional portion of the exam. In light of this SAT essay renovation, many schools will no longer require that students take the SAT essay when they take the exam.
But what do all these changes mean for you? Is the SAT Essay important?
Read on for a breakdown of the new SAT changes, some information on what schools continue to require the SAT essay, why schools do and don’t require this portion of the exam, and how to figure out if the SAT Essay is necessary or important for you.
The New SAT Essay
The SAT was revised in March. The aspect of the exam that is most changed is the essay. Instead of writing a 25-minute opinion piece, you will have 50 minutes to analyze how the author of a given passage constructs their argument.
Additionally, instead of having the exam integrated into your composite score, you will receive a separate score for your exam that does not affect your 1600-point score. The new exam is graded out of 24 points - 8 points each in “Reading” (essentially reading comprehension), “Analysis,” and “Writing” (writing style). See our breakdown of the new rubric here.
Finally, the new essay is a completely optional portion of the exam. You don’t have to take it and you’ll still get your 1600-point score. In this way it’s a lot like the ACT, for which the essay has always been optional. If you wish to register for the essay, you’ll pay an extra $11.50.
Because the essay is now optional, colleges have the option of not requiring students to send SAT essay scores. Thus, many colleges have dropped this requirement. So who still requires the SAT?
Let this creepy happy pencil guide you through the SAT Essay!
Who Requires the New SAT Essay?
According to a Kaplan poll in which 300 schools were surveyed, most schools will not require the optional SAT essay. However, some still do recommend or require it, particularly in the most selective tier of institutions.
Notably, elite schools like the Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Chicago are divided on the issue, with some requiring the essay and some neither requiring or recommending it. In the Ivy League, Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and Yale will continue to require the SAT essay, and Columbia, Cornell, UPenn, and Brown will not.
Big state schools are similarly divided: for example, the University of California system and the University of Michigan both require the essay, University of Illinois and Purdue University recommend it; and Penn State, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Indiana University neither require nor recommend the essay.
For the most up-to-date information on a school’s position on the SAT essay, check the College Board. If the school isn’t on the list, check their admissions website. Those schools that do require the essay have gone on the record with specific reasons for doing so; I’ll break those down in the next section.
Schools are divided, like this egg.
Why Do Schools Require the SAT Essay?
Given that so many schools won’t require the essay going forward, you may be curious about those that do still require it. What’s their reasoning? Based on public statements from school officials, it seems to boil down to three main reasons:
#1: More Information Is Better
Some colleges seem to feel that all of the information they can get from applicants is helpful in painting a complete picture of the applicant. Certainly the SAT Essay presents a somewhat unique data point in that there are no other standardized elements of a college application that would include specific information on an applicant’s timed writing skills. It makes sense that schools that value having all the information that it is conceivably possible to obtain about a student would require the SAT Essay.
#2: The Revised Test Is Similar to College Work
The old SAT essay involved a fairly arbitrary task and bore no resemblance to any work students do in college. However, the revised essay engages a student’s rhetorical analysis skills and requires the kind of analytical thinking students will perform in college. Thus, some colleges require the new SAT Essay because they feel it gives valuable insight into how a student might perform with college-level work.
#3: Sending a Message on the Importance of Writing
Institutions may also require the SAT Essay simply because they wish to telegraph to the world that they believe writing is important. This was part of the rationale given by Yale as to why they would continue to require the essay.
That’s why schools require it—but what about schools that don’t require the essay? What’s their reasoning?
Cats or dogs: another hot-button issue at elite institutions
Why Don't Schools Require the SAT Essay?
There are four main reasons that schools have given for not requiring the SAT essay going forward:
Many schools already do not require the optional writing portion of the ACT. So now that the SAT Essay is also optional, it makes sense to not require it, either. This simply makes testing guidelines consistent for those schools.
#2: The Essay is Redundant
Some schools feel that they already have sufficient evidence of an applicant’s writing capability through application essays. This is particularly true at institutions where multiple essays are required as part of the application.
#3: The SAT Essay Does Not Predict College Success
In the past, the old SAT essay has been shown to be the least predictive element of college success on the SAT. While there is not yet data on the new SAT essay’s predictive capabilities, schools have taken this opportunity to shed what they feel is basically dead weight in an application.
#4: Requiring the SAT Essay Presents a Burden to Underprivileged Students
Columbia’s primary concern is that the extra cost of the essay may be a deterrent to underprivileged students. University of Pennsylvania has made similar statements—minority and underprivileged students are least likely to have a “complete testing profile.” So, they’ve eliminated the SAT Essay requirement in the hopes of attracting a more diverse applicant pool.
A diverse tomato pool.
So Does the SAT Essay Matter to Your College Chances?
I’ve gone over how and why schools use or don’t use the SAT essay. But what does all of this mean for you?
There are two main questions you need to answer to determine how important the essay is for you: first, should you take the SAT Essay section, and second, how important is your score?
Should I Take the SAT Essay?
This comes down mostly to whether or not you are applying to schools that require or recommend the SAT essay. (In college applications, I would generally err on the side of treating recommendations as nicely-worded requirements.)
If you are truly not interested in a single school that requires/recommends the essay, and you don’t see yourself changing your mind, go ahead and skip it. However, if there’s even a chance you might be interested in a school that does require/recommend the essay, you should take it.
And if you’re applying to highly selective schools, definitely take the essay portion, because around half of them require the essay. So if you change your mind at the last minute and decide you’re applying to CalTech as well as MIT, you’ll need that essay.
I advise this because if you don’t take the essay portion and then end up needing it for even one school, you’ll have to take the entire test over again. If you’re happy with your score already, this will be a big four-hour drag for you.
You might also want to take the essay portion if you are particularly good at rhetorical analysis and timed writing. Even for colleges that don’t require the essay, a stellar score will look good.
How Important Is Your SAT Essay Score?
This is a little more complicated, as it does depend to a certain extent on the schools you are applying to. I spoke to admissions officers from several schools, and some themes emerged as to how important they consider your essay score to be, and how they use it in evaluating your application:
- The general consensus was that the essay was the least important part of the SAT overall. Admissions offices will look much more closely at your composite score.
- The SAT essay is primarily looked at in combination with your other writing-based application materials: your admissions essay and your high school English transcripts are also used to determine your writing and language skills. Essentially, it’s a part of a facet of your application.
- That said, bombing the essay would be a red flag to admissions officers that you might not be fully prepared for college-level work.
Overall, I would advise you not to sweat your essay score too much. The most important thing is that your essay score is more or less consistent with your other test scores. It certainly doesn’t have to be perfect—if you get a 1600 and a 18 out of 24, I wouldn’t stress too much. But if you, say, have a 1500 and get a 9/24 on the essay, that’s a little more concerning, as it may cause concern among admissions officers that you aren’t prepared for college-level work.
In general, then, schools really look at the score, but it’s not one of the most important parts of your application or even your SAT score. Your best bet if you are interested in a given school that requires the essay and you want more specific guidance how they use the essay is to call the admissions office and ask.
Not this kind of score!
How Can I Succeed on the SAT Essay?
Luckily, it’s very possible to learn the skills to hit the SAT essay out of the park every time. Here are some general tips:
- Learn specific persuasive and argumentative techniques that you can reference in your essay. If you can’t identify what devices authors can use to make arguments, how will you write an essay about it?
- Make sure you have a clear thesis that can be defended with evidence from the passage.
- Include an introduction and a conclusion. This will help “bracket” your great points and show that you know how to structure a solid piece of writing.
- Rely on evidence from the passage to build your argument.
- Don’t give your opinion on the issue! The new SAT essay is not opinion-based.
- Make sure you use correct grammar and academic language. (No “This passage, like my brows, is on fleek.”)
- Write at least a page.
Tips to success: don't fold up the Essay section into origami boats.
Final Summary and Actionables
With the new SAT making the Essay section optional, many schools have chosen to neither require nor recommend that students take it. Most schools will no longer require the essay, but highly selective schools are divided on the issue.
Among those schools that do require the essay, many have gone on the record to say that they feel the essay provides a valuable additional piece of information on an applicant’s potential for college-level work. They plan on using the essay as a way to further evaluate an applicant’s writing skills, although for most of these schools it is considered the least important part of the SAT score.
At schools where the SAT essay is not required, the essay has been eliminated for a variety of reasons: for more consistency with ACT requirements, because the Essay seems redundant or poorly predictive of college success, or to attract a more diverse applicant pool.
What does all this mean for you? If there’s even a chance you’ll apply to a school that requires or recommends the Essay, take the SAT with Essay. If you don’t and end up needing it later, you’ll have to re-take the entire exam.
If you do take the Essay, don’t stress too much about getting a perfect score, but do prepare enough that you are confident you won’t get a very low score compared to your composite.
If you're thinking about test scores and college, check out my article on the minimum SAT score for college.
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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.