How important is the optional SAT essay?

High School Students With Teacher In Class Using LaptopsFor many, the best news about the change to the SAT was the word “optional” next to the word “essay”. Granted, about 25 colleges will be requiring the essay. However, for all the other schools—including many IVY leagues—the essay is exactly that: optional.

Or is it?

For the moment, and I’m writing this in March 2016, a week before the new SAT debuts, many will opt out of the practice essay. That might seem like a good idea if none of the schools you are hoping to apply to require the essay. My prediction is that high-achieving students are going to take the essay regardless of whether a school accepts it. And they are going to make sure to send those scores to those schools in which the essay is optional, especially if those scores are high.

Will admissions boards be impressed? They might be, they might not. Regardless, if we focus on those cases in which admission boards are swayed by great essay scores, we might start to notice a trend. Students will start to use the essay to stand out at competitive schools. It will signal to admissions that they are not only strong writers but also strong on initiative. In other words, they went above and beyond the requirements.

Now, I’m not sure exactly how we will come to learn exactly how specific admission boards are swayed. It could be a few anonymous posts on one of the many admissions forums. It could be students who do get in posting that they sent their competitive essay scores to schools that were essay optional. Given enough data points, we will start to piece together that the essay is actually important.

Eventually, and again I’m prognosticating, but more and more schools will start to make the essay required. That means a sophomore who did very well on the SAT but didn’t opt in for the essay might have to take the essay after all.

You might be wondering if the essay was such an effective tool at gauging a student’s writing ability why did not all of the colleges require it from the beginning (and why did the College Board—the creators of the SAT—even make it option in the first place?) What happened was that the old SAT essay gained the stigma of being easy to game and not really indicative of a student’s writing ability. That’s perhaps why the College Board made it optional in the first place. If a college historically looked down at the SAT essay, it need not sign up for the new essay.

My take on the new essay—and one I predict many colleges to take—is that the new essay is an improvement on the old essay. First off, it is its less amenable to canned/contrived/laughably fictitious examples that were fair game on the old essay. Instead, students will have to use rhetorical analysis on a published opinion piece (the SAT essay prompts can range from MLK to something published last year in the op-ed section of a national newspaper). This analysis is similar to what many students will do in college—analyze the merits of a published worked. Once essay scores are released, showing that the essay is not that easy to game, and the essay sheds its former stigma, admissions will likely take note. If you’re a student considering the essay, you might want to as well.

Chris LeleWritten by Chris Lele. For the last ten years, Chris has been helping students excel on the SAT and the GRE. In this time, he’s coached 5 students to a perfect SAT score. Some of his GRE students have raised their scores by nearly 400 points. He has taken many GMAT students from the doldrums of the 600s to the coveted land of the 700+. Rumor has it he does a secret happy dance when his students get a perfect score. You can read Chris’s awesome blog posts on the Magoosh High School Blog, and study with his lessons using Magoosh SAT Prep.

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