Harvard Drops Its SAT Essay & ACT Essay Requirements

Matt Larriva
Dec 18, 2020

Harvard announced in early 2020, that students will not need to complete the essay portion of the SAT or ACT in order to fulfill Harvard’s ACT and SAT requirements for applying to the school. The news was not entirely surprising considering the ACT and SAT essay portions were always the oddball sections of the test.

After all, the essay was:

  • 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 ACT/SAT 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.

Why Did Harvard Change It’s SAT Essay Requirements?

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 SAT 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.

The Trend Started With The Subject Tests

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. (Click here to see a list of which schools require the SAT subjects test.)

The UCs dropped the SAT Subject test requirements in 2011, then Harvard dropped its SAT subject test requirement in 2014. So, when these institutions make policy changes, one can expect them to flow through to the rest of higher education.

What Ivy Leagues Require An SAT or ACT Essay?

hravard drops sat essay requirements

Among the Ivy League schools, UPenn, 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.)

Should You Take The SAT or ACT Essay?

In short, yes, you should still complete the essay portion.

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. Start by reading this guide on the SAT essay scoring where I tell you four simple things you can do to get a perfect score on the SAT essay.

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.

If your goal is to get into an Ivy League, we have an in-depth guide that details what students can do to optimize their chances of being accepted, including tips on for the SAT and ACT.

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