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The SAT Essay Section: is it Necessary?

Across the country, high school students who are beginning their preparations for college will sit down and take the standardized SAT, once ubiquitously accepted as a part of a completed college application. As of 2010, this 3 hour and 45 minute exam incorporated an essay section that was meant to “show how effectively you can develop and express ideas,” according to the College Board. The essay section consists of a prompt which test-takers are given a scant 25 minutes to read, analyze and respond to coherently and completely.

However, critics have recently expressed concern that the essay rewards poor writing habits, claiming that the section values length over accuracy, both factual and grammatical. Dr. Les Perelman, director of undergraduate writing at MIT, found a high correlation between the length of the essays and their scores. He was also struck by how factually incorrect the essays were. This is not to mention that good writing- the style of writing that is taught in most freshmen writing seminars-comes about when essays are considered as working documents; sometimes an essay might take several drafts before it is complete.

The SAT writing section does not have any room for that.

Still, colleges and universities across America continue to compare students’ writing scores. The exam and the essay score provide more data, and couldn’t that only help parse out which students really are ready for college? According to the Haverford’s admissions website, the admissions office was faced with 3468 applicants for the Class of 2019 and had to cut that down to just 853 acceptance letters. The SAT provides a common ground and a direct comparison between each and every student.

More recently, though, the necessity of the writing portion has been challenged. This past Tuesday, Swarthmore College announced that it would join the University of Pennsylvania In discontinuing its consideration of the essay portion of the SAT in its college application process. Jim Bock, UPenn’s dean of admissions, said that the decision was based on a low correlation on college success and essay scores.

The decision makes sense: the schools that have opted out offer a number of other methods that more accurately evaluate students’ writing and get a deeper sense of their ability to articulate their ideas. A college application typically already involves two lengthy writing pieces- the common app essay as well as a supplemental essay. At Haverford, students must write an essay of 1 -2 pages on the values of the Honor Code.

In addition to these essays, college applications involve letters of recommendation from teachers who know the student well and are familiar with the student’s writing abilities. These endorsements come from individuals who themselves have presumably completed college and are aware of what constitutes effective and persuasive communication.

In light of the recent decisions, it appears that the Haverford College admissions office might need to reconsider the role of the SAT essay in its college application. If, after all, it provides little or no predictive value and fails to accurately provide insight into a student’s writing abilities, then it might be prudent for the college to follow suit and discontinue its use of the essay.

There is no arguing the immense value of writing in college. Everyone from math majors to English majors must be able to effectively share ideas. However, writing is complex, and who someone is as a writer might not be fully realized in the several hundred words hastily scratched into an SAT test booklet.



  1. Alison M September 7, 2015

    I agree–the essay section of the SAT is unnecessary. To me, it also seems like the ultimate ‘gameable’ section of the test: even more than for the rest of the exam, the keys to the essay are test prep and its associated tips and tricks. So what are you really measuring?

  2. ChillyJess September 15, 2015

    Just as an FYI, we did make the decision in August that we will NOT be requiring (or even recommending) the essay portion of the new SAT.

    Jess Lord

  3. hcclerk September 15, 2015

    Hi Jess Lord,

    A article published on 9/3/15 in which you were quoted stated that “Some other colleges that require the essay, including Haverford, have not yet decided whether to consider the new SAT essay.” This is actually what prompted the article. Thanks for letting us know about the new decision, though!

    (Article Link:

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