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The Redesigned Sat Essay – How Will Colleges Use It? Or Will They?

 In Essay, Redesigned SAT, SAT

Those student pioneers who sit for the first administration of the redesigned SAT (rSAT) in March will end the test by writing an essay – a 50-minute rhetorical analysis assignment that requires students to read a high-quality argumentative text and then write an essay analyzing how the author builds the argument to persuade an audience. The essay is a significant departure from the current SAT essay: less susceptible to “gaming,” more like a document-based AP question, and a better reflection of college level writing assignments. On its face, at least, a big improvement. But what will colleges do with this new essay?

 Require, Recommend, or Neither

By the College Board’s own admission, a single essay historically has not contributed to the overall predictive ability of the test, and as a result, they’ve made the new essay optional. Colleges will decide for themselves whether they will require it, recommend it, or neither.

So far, about 400 U.S. colleges have responded to a College Board survey on how they intend to use the rSAT essay. The results indicate that while some schools believe the essay will be useful, many do not. Roughly 25% of respondents report that they intend to require or recommend the essay in their applications (i.e., they believe it will be useful). The other 75% report that they will neither require nor recommend (i.e., they believe it won’t be useful).

Many of the most selective schools in the country fall into the “require” or “recommend” category, but certainly not all. Selective schools are spread among the three reporting categories. Of the top 20 selective schools in 2014, 7 will require the essay, 3 will recommend it, and 10 will neither require nor recommend it. Some, like Penn, have internal research that suggests the essay is the least predictive element of the current SAT and have projected those findings to the rSAT essay. Penn has a lot of company as 311 of the 404 schools will similarly disregard the essay.

On the other hand, Harvard has decided to require it, even as some of its peer schools have abandoned their ACT and SAT essay requirements. Harvard’s decision is not surprising given Dean of Admissions Bill Fitzimmons’ early role as a supporter of the recent SAT overhaul and as a sounding board for David Coleman and the College Board. Yale, Duke, Stanford, and the University of California system are also among the small group of schools in the “require” camp. The 65 schools that reported “recommend” include Amherst, Pomona, and Vanderbilt.

Sample rSAT Essay Policies

(see the College Board list here)

 Will the essay be used in admissions decisions?

Will colleges use your rSAT essay score in their decisions to admit or reject you? This question, of course, is very different from whether or not a college will require the essay.

In the near term, most schools requiring or recommending the essay will likely use the score only at the edges of a holistic admissions process, probably not all that differently from how they use the current essay score. One can also imagine the very occasional use of the essay itself (schools will have access to written essays) to substantiate the writing in the application essays or to take a deeper dive into a borderline applicant. At colleges that see thousands of applications per year, though, such thoroughness is highly impractical as a common practice. Some schools will use the essay as a data point in English placement decisions. Whatever the immediate use of the essay, schools will mostly adopt a longer term, wait-and-see approach as they gather data over the next 2-3 years to study its predictive ability.

Cover your bases, and do the essay.

During the online registration process, after you’ve just selected a new SAT test date and agreed to pay the $43 fee, you’ll be presented with the following decision:

 SAT Essay

Hah! If you’re of my vintage, the “Yes, charge me $11.50 to add the essay” might remind you of the scene in Animal House when a young Kevin Bacon, playing the role of a fraternity pledge, says “Yes, sir, may I have another!” while continually getting paddled during initiation.

Most students should pay for the additional pain and suffering. While it is likely that the rSAT essay won’t carry much weight in admissions decisions, particularly in this nascent phase, opting into the essay is the safest and wisest choice based on current information. Today’s students typically apply to 5-10 schools and given the disparate essay policies, even among peer schools, odds are that at least a few of those schools will want the essay.

Over the next year, we will continue to learn more about how colleges will use the essay. We pride ourselves on being an expert resource to all of our constituents, and we will endeavor to stay on top of the latest news and trends in the ever-changing testing landscape. We’d love to hear from you, so please contact us anytime.

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