Our Advice on Whether to Complete the ACT or SAT Essay

By: Jason Robinovitz | Last Updated: June 24, 2019

A recent blog post by one of our fellow members of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) opened with this advice to other IECA members:

It's time to stop telling students to write the ACT or SAT essay. Seriously...Just stop....

The identity of the author of that blog won’t be disclosed in this post for reasons that you may infer from what we have to say about his post, his facts, and his conclusions.

His reason for giving such advice is that the number of

US colleges and universities that require applicants to complete the essay portion of SAT or ACT…has been dwindling over the past several years and we are now left with…eighteen colleges/universities that require said essay…[and]…eighteen represents fewer than one percent of all four-year schools in the United States.

student writing - ben-mullins-785450-unsplashThere are two problems with the above, the first of which is the statement that only 18 colleges/universities require completion of the ACT essay (what ACT refers to as its “Writing Section”) or the SAT Essay. (Because the ACT and the SAT are accepted interchangeably by virtually all colleges, we’ll focus on the ACT Writing Section in what follows.) Based on our own research on the ACT website, there are 44 colleges in New York, Texas, and California, alone, that require the ACT Writing section as part of the admissions process. So, while we’ll grant that the number of colleges that require completion of the ACT Writing or the SAT Essay is a very small percentage of the total number of colleges, 18 appears to be significantly too low.

The second – and far more serious – problem with the blog author’s advice is how it ignores the fact that many things that students aren’t required to do would still be very much in their best interests to do. For example, students aren’t required to study hard for tests, and job applicants aren’t required to wear clean clothing to job interviews, but…

Man Giving Thumbs Up

…while a fairly small number of colleges require completion of the ACT Writing Section or the SAT Essay Section, it might still well be to a student’s benefit to do so. Our analysis of data presented in an April 21, 2019 post on the prepscholar blog discloses that while only 67 colleges require completion of the ACT Writing Section, another 408 colleges recommend that it be completed. Consider, for a moment, applying for a job and not doing something that the prospective employer recommends that you do. This omission doesn’t strike us as a sound strategy if the objective is to get hired. And consider what your chances would be if many other applicants for the position do what is recommended – and do it well – while you haven’t done it at all.

It gets worse: In addition to those schools that require or recommend completion of the SAT Essay or ACT Writing Section, there are an unknown (and likely difficult to quantify) number of colleges that neither require nor recommend completion of SAT/ACT essays but will consider the scores of those essays when making admissions decisions. Consider what your chances of admission would be if many other applicants completed those essays and scored well on them, while you haven’t submitted any essay with your test scores.

About the only scenario we can imagine in which students shouldn’t complete a SAT/ACT essay is if those students are absolutely certain that all of the schools to which they might conceivably apply won’t consider the score — and that’s likely something you’d discover only on a case-by-case basis by visiting individual college’s websites and/or contacting admissions at those schools.

So, as to our colleague’s statement, “It's time to stop telling students to write the ACT or SAT essay,” we disagree.

Pin down your needs now. College admissions offices are more than willing to set their record straight about their essay requirements. Give them a call if the school website doesn’t answer your question.

And if there’s the slightest doubt about to what schools you might be applying, do the safe thing by completing the SAT or ACT essay.


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