Illustrations, University News

Test essay scores optional for class of 2021 onwards

Office of Admission foresees increase in diversity of applicant pool due to test’s lower cost

Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Applicants hurrying to polish their early decision applications to Brown by the Nov. 1 deadline are among the last applicants who will be required to submit SAT or ACT essays.

The Office of Admission will no longer require applicants to submit the essay portions of the SAT or ACT, starting in fall 2016 with applicants to the class of 2021, according to its website. The decision follows the College Board’s announcement that the essay section of the SAT will be optional from March 2016 onwards.

Admission officers believe that they have enough information to make “thoughtful and informed” decisions with the redesigned SAT and the Common Application, said Dean of Admission Jim Miller ’73. “We know that tests are stressful and time consuming, and for some people they can be a significant expense. So we want to make sure we’re doing what is in the best interest of the applicants,” he said.

The SAT currently costs $54.50, while the SAT without essay will cost $43, though SAT fee waivers will cover the entirety of either, according to the College Board website. The ACT, which has always had an optional essay, costs $56.50 with essay and $39.50 without.

Half of Ivy League universities require scores from the essay portion of either test. Penn, Columbia and Cornell will join Brown in waiving the requirement, while Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Dartmouth will still require applicants to submit essay scores.

While the reading and writing sections of the SAT are “deeply predictive of college success,” the essay is not as useful to many admission officers, the College Board wrote in a statement. The new SAT essay is adjusted to reflect college-style analytical writing. Whereas the old SAT essay portion required students to respond to a prompt, the new essay asks students to compose an analysis of a given passage. Students have 50 minutes — twice as long as they had for the old essay — to work.

Students who submit essay scores will not have an advantage over those who do not, Miller said. Similarly, though the writing section of the ACT is still “strongly recommended” according to the Office of Admission’s website, students will not be disadvantaged if they do not take the ACT with writing, he said.

Juanda Tan ’19 said though he felt that the writing portion tested his ability to construct a coherent argument, he supports the University’s decision, because these are skills that admission officers can gauge with the Common Application essay and supplemental essays that vary by school. He added that “not every concentration requires argumentation anyway, so someone’s ability to argue shouldn’t necessarily be a deciding factor of his or her spot at Brown.”

The change in the testing policy will also “level the socioeconomic playing field” for applicants, said Divya Santhanam ’19. “Conventional grammar rules aren’t always taught in schools. Someone who has an SAT coach could learn, say, 14 grammar rules,” but someone from a low-income background may not be able to afford that kind of training, she said. “I did well on the writing section because I had prep books to study from and a family that came from a very well-read background.” 

Colleges that choose to make the essay portion optional will also likely see a broadening of their applicant pool because of the lower cost of taking the test, said Steve Goodman, education consultant and admission strategist at Top Colleges. “The goal is to diversify the applicant pool and deepen it, and this is just one step towards that,” he said.

Students usually find the writing portion challenging and will take advantage of the changes made, Goodman said. “This is like the strange uncle or aunt who comes into town for Thanksgiving and then moves away … and then all of a sudden we don’t have to deal with them any more,” he said. “Good riddance.”

But the current testing policy is subject to change. The Admission Office will evaluate the policy every few years based on what the new test reveals and whether or not the new system provides enough information for admission officers to make decisions, Miller said. “Nothing is chiseled in concrete forever.”


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  1. When I asked my wife to marry me, it was on our first date. I’d actually never met her before then, but she was recommended by others.

    I had her write an essay and take of couple of standardized tests. It was enough to form an opinion about her, and to accept her on early decision.

    Of course, she had as little information as I did. Having never met me, she was nevertheless impressed by my essays. She required no standardized tests.

    Although we are both frequent users of social media, we never thought about using it to get to know one another.

    Well, it must have worked. We divorced after 4 years, but I still send her letters asking her to remember the great times during our marriage, and asking her to send money.

  2. To promote this change as saving students/families money is absolutely specious. As long as most colleges still require or recommend the writing section on either test, the students will have to take it and pay for it. So to mention the ‘cost savings’ in this connection is deceptive at best.

    • There may be some small percentage of families for whom paying the additional $11.50 is difficult but who do not qualify for fee waivers. Go, Brown!

  3. Nothing like dumbing down admissions standards to get more applicants. Sad we have to decrease standards to get more minorities. For the record Yale is also eliminating the essay.

  4. Brian Meegan says:

    Would not want to lose out on those great students who do not have grammar skills, would you… They will be taught by the University professors, right??

  5. They can always learn “conventional” (i.e., proper) grammar in the remedial courses they will surely be taking. That should easily make up for twelve years of neglect.

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