Today I’m addressing an old topic, but with a newly revised answer.

“Do I need to take the written essay on the SAT or ACT?”

My answer to this question has changed. My old advice was, “Yes, you must take it!” In the last couple years, though, I’ve changed my answer. (I’m not saying never take it, so read to the end to get the details.)

A Little Background

To understand why I’ve changed my position, we need to take a quick trip through history of standardized admissions testing. In 2005 the SAT added a written essay.  It was part of the multiple-choice score for writing and every student began the SAT with a 25-minute written essay. The ACT quickly joined in and added an optional essay to their exam and colleges started requiring students to submit scores with the added writing.

In 2016 the SAT changed again. The written essay became optional. These optional essays no longer had any bearing on a student’s overall test score.

At the same time, we’ve seen colleges downplay the role of standardized testing in admission. Some schools have elected to make SAT and ACT scores optional; others have removed requirements for things like the SAT Subject Tests [read more about Subject Tests here.]

Current Situation

Both the SAT and ACT include an optional written essay at the end of the exam.

I describe it to my students this way. The essay is like your annoying cousin from out of town that you have to drag along for the day. The essay is an unwanted part of the test that doesn’t impact your SAT or ACT score, but you’ve been stuck with it, probably under duress, if any of the schools on your list require it.

Students who sign up for the written potion of the ACT or SAT will have 40 or 50 minutes (depending on which test they are taking) to produce a written composition in response to the prompt. These essays are given numerical scores, but those scores don’t impact a student’s overall SAT or ACT score.

Since 2016 the number of schools requiring the written essays has dropped so dramatically that almost nobody requires it. There are, however, a couple big exceptions.

Most Colleges Don’t Care

Most colleges do NOT use the SAT or ACT essays in admission. They do not require students take that optional part of the exam and do not use scores they may receive as part of the admissions review.

Additionally, among the schools and programs that require the written essay, the emphasis is on the student’s actual writing, not on the score awarded by the graders.

Schools That Require the Essay

The biggest exception to the trend of NOT requiring the ACT or SAT written essay is the University of California system. If you want to apply to any of the UC schools: Berkeley, UCLA, UC Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, etc., you will have to take the written essay.

*UPDATE: later in the spring of this year (2020) the UC System announced they were dropping all SAT / ACT testing requirements, so you will no longer need the written essay to apply to UC schools.*

Other than the UC system, a couple dozen other schools around the country, like West Point, require students to submit the optional written essays. This list has been shrinking every year.

Other Programs That Require the Essay

There are some other programs that require these written essays, but they are few and far between. This list includes certain scholarships, specialized academic programs, and honors colleges.

On example is the LSU, Louisiana State University, honors college. They weigh the written essay equally with a student’s high school GPA and their ACT or SAT scores. In other words, competitive admission to this honors program counts three things: high school GPA, SAT or ACT scores and the written essay from the ACT or SAT.

Should YOU Take the Written Essay?

Here are the steps that I encourage my clients to go through in order to answer this question.

1.Make a preliminary list of the schools to which you want to apply.

Because students will be drafting this list towards the end of 10th grade or during their junior years, I expect they will include any school they might possibly consider. The list will be bigger than the final list and include schools that have piqued a student’s interest, even if they haven’t visited or had much time to research.

2. Research the testing policies for the schools on your list.

Go to the admissions website for each college. Do NOT try to take shortcuts by using lists you find online.

I just checked the list of colleges requiring the written essay on the College Board website, the official site for the SAT. Using their search tool, I found three schools that met my criteria that College Board indicated required the essay. But when I verified with the admissions websites for these three schools, I found none of them required the essay. So, either College Board is overselling their product or it is lagging behind in reporting who does or does not require the written essay.

If doing this amount of research seems like a lot of work, go ahead and plan to take the written essay instead.

3. Determine your ability to successfully complete the written essay.

Would it be that much of an imposition to add the essay?

For many students, the answer is no. Most could sit there for another hour and produce a competent piece of college-bound writing. (You don’t need to produce brilliant writing or exceptional writing; you need to show that you are a college-bound student that can formulate coherent ideas and express them correctly and effectively.)

But some students find the written essay to be a tremendous burden. Typically, these students fall into three categories:

  • Extended time testers
  • Anxious test takers
  • Struggling writers

Students taking the exam with extended time have already been sitting in their test rooms for six hours that day. Adding on another 90 minutes to take the written essay is a burden. These students are burnt out by this point.

For anxious test takers, the written essay can compound an already challenging issue. Some students are specifically worried about the written portion of the exam and the anticipation of the essay will impact their ability to focus on the multiple-choice portion (the part that determines their actual ACT or SAT score.) Others have a generalized anxiety about testing and adding another hour to an already stressful day is challenging.

Struggling writers will also find the optional essay to be a burden. Some of these students produce excellent work, but require far more time to process the question, brainstorm ideas, outline their thoughts, and write it all down. Other students simply struggle with the restrictions of this type of timed writing. They need a keyboard, spell check, the opportunity to bounce ideas off others, time for revision, access to a dictionary or translation device, etc.  The restrictions of the SAT and ACT essays are problematic for these students.

My Updated Answer

Five years ago, I would have said everybody needs to take the written essay because there were so many schools that required it. That’s no longer the case.

If you are considering a college or university that requires the optional writing portion, take it.

If you don’t want to research tons of colleges and adding an extra 40-50 minute essay to your test day is not an imposition, take it.

If you want to be on the safe side and you don’t mind the essay portion, take it.

But, if you don’t need the essay, you can skip it. If adding the essay is going to be a hardship or will jeopardize your ability to score well on the multiple-choice portion, don’t take it.

If the trend away from standardized testing continues, I don’t think we will see optional essays on the SAT or ACT in five years; we will return to a pre-2005 testing world without the written portion. For now, make the decision that is best for you.