Recently, a new debate has arisen from the ashes of a very old debate. The question is, “Should students concentrate time and resources studying for the SAT and ACT essays when they are required by so few schools?” I remember arguing this point to my colleagues 20 years ago. Back then, the essay was actually part of the SAT II Writing Test, which was mainly a test of grammar but which also had an optional essay. I had devised a very controversial technique called the Adaptable Essay Strategy, which taught students how to prewrite their essay and learn how to adapt it to each prompt. It was highly effective and, frankly, took advantage of the way the test was designed.
Today, the argument is different. Those on the pro-essay side say that spontaneous writing is the best measure of a student’s actual writing ability and so is highly valued by colleges. Those on the anti-essay side say that, since so few schools require the essay, it does not make sense to prepare for it. Both sides have valid points. However, a deeper analysis reveals why it should be obvious that students should prepare for, and take, either the ACT Essay or the SAT Essay. Here’s why:
College requirements with regard to SAT or ACT essays vary greatly. Some schools require the ACT essay if you take the ACT or the SAT essay if you take the SAT. Other schools have more complex rules. For example, some schools require the essay with the ACT but not with the SAT. Still other schools use the essays for placement. If you are applying to any of the schools that requires the essay, such as all campuses of the University of California, the conversation is over. You must take the optional essay. Otherwise, the choice is yours.
“Optional” does not mean prohibited. Therefore, if you are capable of earning a high score on either the ACT or SAT essay, you should consider taking it—it can definitely help your cause. If you submit a high score, colleges will look at it and consider it a positive contribution to your admission profile. If, however, you are likely to earn less than a 10 (on a scale of 2-12) on the ACT essay or less than a combination of 3’s and 4’s (on a scale of 1-4) on the SAT essay, there may be no need for you to take the essay. A mediocre score won’t help you. However, a high score can elevate you to a better admission position.
It has been said that writing is a lost art form, yet most colleges appreciate students who can demonstrate excellent writing ability. Furthermore, while most colleges may have any of a variety of issues with the SAT or ACT essays, most do consider them to be objective measures of a student’s writing ability when comparing one student to another. Very few colleges, if any, feel that the essays are unfair or in any way biased.
Opting into the SAT or ACT essay can prove your passion for writing and your willingness to engage in challenging activities. Conversely, it may send an ambiguous message if you talk about your passion for writing and willingness to work hard, but then opt out of the optional essay. It doesn’t make sense, and colleges will recognize this fact.
For colleges that require you to submit a graded paper, a spontaneous essay written for either the SAT or ACT serves as either a validator, or even a more accurate gauge of your writing ability. That is because you are unlikely to select a paper that represents poor or average work, but rather you are far more likely to showcase a highly polished and perfected one that is the result of several iterations. The SAT or ACT essay is, on the contrary, a first draft—providing a far more accurate example of your native writing ability.
So, when deciding whether or not to take the ACT essay or SAT essay, consider these facts. Yes, it is easier to take the test without the optional essay section. Yes, the essay is required by very few colleges. Yes, preparing for the SAT or ACT will be easier if you don’t have to prepare for the essay portion of either test. However, the factors on the other side far outweigh these factors. Taking and getting a high score on either essay can provide a boost to your college application. It can prove your passion for writing and validate both your English grades and comments coming from your English teacher. It also proves your willingness to work hard for a cause you believe in— in this case, getting into the college of your dreams.
Neil Chyten, Founder
NC Global Education
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