This week College Board announced an immediate end to SAT Subject Tests and the optional written essay. You can read the full news story here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/sat-ending-essay-subject-tests/2021/01/19/ac82cdd8-574a-11eb-a817-e5e7f8a406d6_story.html

Subject Tests

This is pretty straightforward. No more SAT Subject Test exams will be given. You can’t take them anymore.

Most students didn’t even know the SAT Subject Tests existed. However, students applying to the ultra-hard-to-get-into schools (think Georgetown, Duke, Yale, etc.) have been sacrificing additional Saturdays to testing in order to submit even more standardized test scores. In the past five years most schools moved from “requiring” Subject Tests to simply “recommending” them.

Due to the pandemic no schools asked for Subject Tests in the 2020 application season, but many juniors were planning to take them this spring in preparation for applications next fall.​

This decision by the College Board wipes out one hurdle to admission at highly competitive schools.

While I know some students preferred the Subject Tests (exams, much like the name suggests, which test a single subject in a 50-minute multiple choice format), most students who want to demonstrate achievement in a particular topic have other ways to do so. Many will have AP or IB test scores in addition to their high school grades. Too often the Subject Test requirements became prohibitive for students who did not know in advance that they would apply to a school that requested them.​

Bye, Subject Tests! That’s one little detail we won’t have to worry about.

Optional Essay

This part of the College Board’s announcement has caused some confusion.

Starting with the next SAT in March, there will not be an optional written essay at the end of the SAT. The SAT is not going away; the optional essay has been dropped.

If you registered for a spring SAT and included the optional essay, you may get a notification from College Board. Read it carefully. You should still be registered for the SAT. You will take the regular test, but not the written essay at the end.

I’ll explain some background on the optional essay in my commentary below, but the impact on students is simple: no more need to debate whether or not to sign up for the “+Writing” portion of the SAT or ACT!​

That’s right! You can skip the essay on the ACT now, too. If students can’t take the essay on the SAT, colleges will not demand it of students to choose to take the competing exam.

Earlier this month I started researching colleges that still required the optional essay. I could find only one— the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. All other colleges had already abandoned the written essays.

College Board’s announcement simply finalizes what we could all see coming. The era of the written essay on the SAT and ACT has come to an end.

Commentary and a Little History

Those of us in college admissions and test prep could see this coming. Just the day before the announcement, I told a new class of SAT students that they didn’t need the essay and I expected it to be gone in the next five years. College Board made the decision sooner than I anticipated.

While this ultimately is good news for students, don’t think the College Board did you any favors. It is a large organization (think corporation) that made a financial decision in THEIR best interest.

The written essay was introduced to the SAT in 2005. (I scored essays for College Board that first year. Boy was it a horrible job!) The essay came with a major overhaul of the test. It was done in response to pressure from colleges, specifically the University of California system, which threatened to drop the SAT entirely if it didn’t place more emphasis on practical skills, like effective written communication, and less on skills that bore little resemblance to what students learned in school. Out went the analogy and quantitative comparison problems. They were highly coachable and gave a clear advantage to students who had access to high quality test prep.

The SAT essay spent the next 15 years headlining the test. It was the first section students encountered on all exams from 2005 until the most recent update in 2016.

For the past five years, the essay has been optional. Colleges that required the essay as a result of the 2005 change slowly reevaluated its value. When I wrote an article on the optional essay last year, the biggest reason to take it was the University of California. The entire UC System still required the optional essay until last spring when it dropped all testing (SAT or ACT).

College Board lost its biggest client. Then the pandemic. And lots of colleges are considering test optional policies beyond 2020.

The College Board, as a business, had two struggling divisions: SAT Subject Tests and the optional written essay. They did what most businesses have to do in tough economic times and eliminated the least profitable divisions.

Conclusion

The good news is the College Board’s decision will make it easier for more students to apply to college. No more agonizing over the written essay (or whether to take it at all.) The only problem is I already ordered all my 2021 SAT and ACT workbooks. I guess we will be skipping the pages that deal with the essay.

We can celebrate this win then get back to studying for the March SAT!