Down with the SAT and ACT Essay
The SAT and ACT essay portions were always the oddball sections of the test: the only non-multiple-choice portion, the only portion that was subjective, and the only part that was optional. Students are forced to decipher what ‘optional’ really means by finding if the essay is optional, required, or recommended by their target school. The process is arcane, but Harvard has taken a step in a clarifying direction by reclassifying the essay portions as optional.
Better late than never
When the SAT shifted its format in 2014 and made the essay optional, as it was and is on the ACT, other Ivy League universities were quick to state that they would not require students to take the essay portions, but Harvard took a wait-and-see approach. Now the university is citing diversity concerns as its reason for dropping the essay requirement, noting that by removing the essay requirement (which cost students $14 and $16.50 for the SAT and ACT respectively) it can draw applicants from wider economic backgrounds.
Who needs an essay?
Among the Ivies, Penn, Columbia, and Cornell have not required the essay since 2015. We can now add Harvard to that list, leaving only Brown, Dartmouth, and Yale requiring the essay.
Note that the UC system still requires the essay.
For a list of schools and their essay requirements, see this link.
Sign of things to come
Often, changes in higher education are pushed through from the Ivy Leagues or from the UC system. The shift toward quality and depth over quantity of extracurricular activities was ossified by Harvard’s Turning the Tide letter. The shift away from SAT Subject tests was started in California. The UCs dropped the SAT Subject test requirements in 2011, then Harvard dropped its SAT subject test requirement in 2014 (though it’s still recommended). So, when these institutions make policy changes, one can expect them to flow through to the rest of higher education.
Should you take the essay?
In short, yes. The essays still serve to keep options open and to break ties in case of close admissions calls. But these changes illustrate that the SAT and ACT essays are negligible parts of the application. Take the essay, but treat it with the same importance as these colleges do, which is to say, very little. Glance over some sample prompts, and plan to write a well-structured, 5-paragraph essay with complete sentences and appropriate vocabulary. Beyond that, focus your energies where they’ll produce a positive return, and breathe a sigh of relief over one fewer school requiring the SAT and ACT essay.