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New Sat Essay Optional Product

The University of Pennsylvania commencement in 2011. (Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images)

There’s a burning question among students aiming for admission to elite colleges: Do you have to take the essay portion of admission tests even if those essays are technically “optional”?

The University of Pennsylvania and some others are now saying: No, you don’t.

The issue arose after the College Board announced that it would roll out a new version of the SAT in March 2016. Among other changes, the essay portion of the SAT will become optional. The ACT, the other major admission test, also has an optional essay.

[Revisions coming to the SAT.]

In years past, many elite colleges hit upon a formula for the testing mandate: They required applicants to submit scores from either the SAT (which since 2005 has included a mandatory essay) or the ACT with writing.

Even so, there has been some debate in the admission world about the value of the essays on the two tests.

On Thursday, U-Penn. said it would not require applicants to take the SAT’s optional essay when the revised test debuts. In addition, it will no longer require applicants to take the ACT’s “optional” essay.

“Not requiring the essay is in no way a reflection that writing is not a critical skill,” said Yvonne Romero DaSilva, vice dean and director of admissions for the private Ivy League university in Philadelphia. She said U-Penn. will gauge writing through other essays included with applications and through the record of students in high school language and literature courses.

DaSilva said U-Penn. hopes the shift in its requirements will make the application process a bit “less stressful and more accessible.”

Two other Ivy League schools have announced a similar policy on the “optional” essay.

Cornell University says it will not require the revised SAT essay. Nor will it require the ACT essay.

Columbia University says it will not require the revised SAT essay. It will continue to require the ACT essay for students applying for the class that enters in fall 2016, but it will drop that requirement the following year.

The College Board is keeping track of requirements for the SAT essay at schools around the country. See those requirements here.

Some schools are ditching the SAT and ACT requirements altogether because they worry that the tests are a barrier for some disadvantaged students. The latest, this week, is George Washington University in the nation’s capital.

Read more:

GWU drops requirement for ACT and SAT in admissions.

Bombed the ACT or SAT? These schools are “test-optional.”

Many college applicants send in test scores even when it’s optional.

Yale’s in favor; Brown is opposed.

The Ivy League is in a dead split on requiring the SAT’s optional essay, leaving the country’s top students little option but to take that part of the test.

Harvard, Princeton and Dartmouth are lining up with Yale in telling applicants to submit results from the essay portion of the revamped SAT entrance exam, according to a Bloomberg poll of the schools. Columbia, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, along with Brown, are taking the opposite position.

Breaking the tie is Stanford -- too far West to be an Ivy member. The country’s most-selective school weighed in in favor of the “optional” writing exercise.

Students currently write an essay on a topic provided, based on their own ideas and without need for accuracy, in 25 minutes. After March, when the new version of the exam is introduced, students will need to show they understand a text by writing an analysis of it in 50 minutes. Those in the “Yes” camp say the new version would resemble the work students will do in school.

“Analytic writing is an important component of college-level work at Yale,” said Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions at the school in New Haven, Connecticut. “Hopefully we can use this in our process.”

Writing Ability

The SAT essay has attracted scorn since its introduction a decade ago. The National Council of Teachers of English panned the test then, saying it would “add little or nothing to what can usefully be determined about a student’s writing ability.”

Doug Hesse, president-elect of the group and a professor of English at the University of Denver, isn’t optimistic that the revised exam will produce useful results.

“The kinds of things that you can measure in impromptu writing are pretty limited,” he said.

Making the essay optional gives both colleges and students more flexibility, said Cyndie Schmeiser, chief of assessment at the College Board, which administers the test.

Other changes for the new SAT include dropping esoteric words and eliminating penalties for wrong answers, as the College Board aligns the exam with the competing ACT. ACT’s writing test is also optional.

Some tutors said the SAT’s new essay section will be an improvement over the old one.

“It is clearly a superior assessment of a student’s ability to analyze and expound upon a text,” said Jed Applerouth, founder of Applerouth Tutoring Services in Atlanta.

Other Schools

While Ivy League remains divided, most colleges won’t ask for the essay test, according to a preliminary survey by Kaplan Test Prep. Of almost 300 schools responding to the poll, more than two-thirds said they will neither require nor recommend students submit the essay.

Penn opted not to require writing because research showed it the least predictive exam element, according to Eric Furda, dean of admissions.

Columbia won’t require the test, partly because of the increased cost to students, said Jessica Marinaccio, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid. The price is $43 without the essay and $54.50 with it.

“While the College Board does offer fee waivers to eligible students, we do not want the perceived expense of testing costs to be a barrier, especially given the opportunities elsewhere in the application for students to demonstrate their writing ability,” Marinaccio said in a statement.

She said essays in the Common Application and Columbia’s writing supplement provide sufficient examples of an applicant’s skills.

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