The Truth About The "Optional" SAT Essay

The Optional SAT Essay

Perhaps the most startling feature among the many differences between the “Old” and “New” SAT exams is the so-called “optional” essay. Yes, it is true that students are given the option of taking the SAT test without the final essay section. However, it is not true that the essay no longer matters. The essay offers students an opportunity to display their analytical skills directly, presumably in ways that are more unique than what is offered in the multiple choice sections. Across the entire SAT exam, there is a strong emphasis on critical analysis and close examination of information on a variety of topics. The essay is no exception. It asks students to carefully read and interpret a complex passage, understand how the author uses various elements to present an argument, and then write a cogent essay explaining these observations and analyses. No easy task! Perhaps it isn’t so surprising, then, that many schools have decided not to require the essay from the new SAT as part of their application processes for admission.

The truth is that the essay is now more important than ever, despite what messages these school policies may appear to convey. The most selective colleges and universities will, in fact, continue to require the essay portion of the SAT. These schools include Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, and all of the University of California (UC) schools. However, as Dian Schaffhauser points out, “many of the top tier institutions would no longer require the essay submission,” such as the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Cornell, University of Southern California, and Johns Hopkins. At first glance, this could suggest that the essay may no longer be seen as a significant factor in determining a student’s proficiency with the test material. However, many authorities in both college preparation and college admissions view the essay as an area where talented writers and critical thinkers can stand out from their peers. Students can add impressive value to their overall standardized test score by providing an eloquent and insightful piece of writing. A successful essay can go a long way in demonstrating the maturity and sophistication of a student’s ability to handle difficult reading texts.

The intentions behind making the SAT essay optional in college applications are as broad as they are unclear. Schools may have several distinct reasons for not requiring the essay portion. Perhaps it puts English Language Learners and International students at a disadvantage. Perhaps it could serve to increase the number of applications that a particular school receives. Whatever the reason, our approach toward preparing for the SAT in order to put together successful college applications remains the same. We believe that preparing fully for every section of the test by mastering the important, underlying skills and concepts in combination with lots and lots of practice is the key to feeling both comfortable and confident in your abilities. Regardless of the schools on your list someday, having a thoughtful and coherent essay on the SAT will help you stand out when applying.



Dian Schaffhauser, “SAT Essay Losing Steam Among Admissions Officers.” The Journal. Oct. 5, 2015.