ACT Writing and New SAT Essay Requirements

  • 5
  • January 10, 2016

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As colleges address the Redesigned SAT, they have largely followed existing practice when it comes to accepting the New SAT versus the outgoing SAT or how the exams will be superscored. A major shift, though, is taking place in essay requirements for the SAT and ACT. In fact, Compass expects that fewer than one-third of competitive colleges will require a standardized test essay for the fall of 2017 admission class. Early on, high profile schools such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Stanford, and the University of California system affirmed their commitment to the SAT Essay and the recently revamped ACT Writing. Meanwhile, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Cornell, Northwestern, and Boston College adopted policies that dropped or will drop the ACT essay and made clear that the New SAT Essay would not be required. Other schools such as University of Chicago and Georgetown never adopted ACT Writing in the first place, ignored the original SAT essay, and will ignore the New SAT Essay. Hundreds of other schools are now starting to publish their policies.

Compass has long maintained an SAT Subject Test resource for families and counselors and intends to do the same for SAT and ACT essay requirements.  Not all colleges have clarified their essay policies. This page will be kept up-to-date as colleges prepare for the Class of 2017, and we encourage linking to it. Please post a comment or email guide@compassprep.com if you have questions or recommended changes.

College Board and ACT do maintain lists of essay policies. College Board’s is new and very incomplete. ACT’s is old and stale (i.e. includes no information on recent drops). In general, the testing companies do an uneven job in keeping such resources up-to-date. We will certainly monitor their lists for important changes. We will soon expand this list to several hundred schools, but it currently includes the first 60 schools on U.S. News’ list of top National Universities and 40 from its Liberal Arts Colleges list. This pool provides a wide range of institutions and policies. In general, we find that less competitive colleges are less likely to require either the New SAT Essay or ACT Writing.

Despite the decline in colleges requiring an SAT or ACT essay, Compass is still recommending that students make the essay a part of their testing plans. Skipping the essay can leave a student scrambling to fit in an additional test date should his or her college plans change. Colleges requiring the essay will typically not superscore test dates without the essay. The University of California system alone drives the decision for many of Compass’ students. Just as important, it’s uncommon for an ACT or SAT essay to be a significant negative factor on an application. So many student scores cluster in the middle score ranges (and don’t get me started on the inadequacies of the new ACT Writing scale) that the essay remains a remarkably weak predictor for colleges. With a minimum amount of practice, most students can reach the 25th – 75th percentile score ranges of even the most elite colleges in the country — something not at all true about other sections of the exams. The new and longer essays will have to quickly prove their value or the remaining requirers will push them aside. Students should not face millions of dollars in added fees and millions of hours in extended testing time unless the essay proves its worth. Validity studies, unfortunately, may not be available until 2019.

ACT and SAT Essay Requirements - Class of 2017 and Beyond

CollegeSAT Essay PolicyACT Writing PolicyRecent ACT Drop
Amherst CollegeStrongly Recom'dStrongly Recom'd
Barnard CollegeOptionalOptionalYes
Bates CollegeOptionalOptional
Boston CollegeOptionalOptionalYes
Boston UniversityOptionalOptionalYes
Bowdoin College*OptionalOptional
Brandeis University*OptionalOptionalYes
Brown UniversityRecommendedRecommendedYes
Bryn Mawr College*OptionalOptional
Bucknell UniversityOptionalOptional
California Institute of TechnologyRequiredRequired
Carleton CollegeOptionalOptional
Carnegie Mellon UniversityOptionalOptionalYes
Case Western Reserve UniversityRecommendedRecommended
Claremont McKenna CollegeRequiredRequired
Colby College*RecommendedRecommended
Colgate UniversityOptionalOptional
College of the Holy Cross*OptionalOptional
College of William and MaryOptionalOptional
Colorado College*OptionalOptional
Columbia UniversityOptionalOptionalYes
Cornell UniversityOptionalOptionalYes
Dartmouth CollegeRequiredRequired
Davidson CollegeOptionalOptional
Dickinson College*OptionalOptional
Duke UniversityRecommendedRequired
Emory UniversityRequiredRequired
George Washington University*OptionalOptionalYes
Georgetown UniversityOptionalOptional
Georgia Institute of TechnologyRecommendedRequiredYes
Grinnell CollegeOptionalOptional
Hamilton CollegeOptionalOptional
Harvard UniversityRequiredRequired
Harvey Mudd CollegeOptionalOptionalYes
Haverford CollegeOptionalOptionalYes
Johns Hopkins UniversityOptionalOptionalYes
Kenyon CollegeOptionalOptional
Lafayette CollegeOptionalOptionalYes
Lehigh UniversityOptionalOptionalYes
Macalester CollegeOptionalOptional
Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyOptionalOptionalYes
Middlebury CollegeOptionalOptional
Mount Holyoke College*OptionalOptional
New York UniversityOptionalOptionalYes
Northeastern UniversityOptionalOptionalYes
Northwestern UniversityOptionalOptionalYes
Oberlin CollegeOptionalOptionalYes
Ohio State University - ColumbusOptionalRequired
Pennsylvania State University - University ParkOptionalOptional
Pepperdine UniversityRecommendedRecommended
Pitzer College*OptionalOptional
Pomona CollegeRecommendedRecommended
Princeton UniversityRequiredRequired
Rensselaer Polytechnic InstituteOptionalOptionalYes
Rice UniversityOptionalOptionalYes
Scripps CollegeOptionalRequired
Skidmore CollegeOptionalOptionalYes
Smith College*OptionalOptional
Stanford UniversityRequiredRequired
Swarthmore CollegeOptionalOptionalYes
Tufts UniversityOptionalOptionalYes
Tulane UniversityOptionalOptional
Union College*OptionalOptional
United States Air Force AcademyRecommendedRecommended
United States Military AcademyRequiredRequired
United States Naval AcademyOptionalOptional
University of California - BerkeleyRequiredRequired
University of California - DavisRequiredRequired
University of California - IrvineRequiredRequired
University of California - Los AngelesRequiredRequired
University of California - San DiegoRequiredRequired
University of California - Santa BarbaraRequiredRequired
University of ChicagoOptionalOptional
University of ConnecticutOptionalOptional
University of FloridaOptionalOptional
University of Illinois - UrbanaOptionalOptional
University of Maryland - College ParkOptionalOptionalYes
University of MiamiRequiredRequired
University of MichiganRequiredRequired
University of North Carolina - Chapel HillOptionalOptionalYes
University of Notre DameOptionalOptional
University of PennsylvaniaOptionalOptionalYes
University of RichmondOptionalOptional
University of Rochester*OptionalOptionalYes
University of Southern CaliforniaOptionalOptionalYes
University of Texas - AustinRequiredRequired
University of VirginiaOptionalOptionalYes
University of WashingtonRecommendedRecommendedYes
University of Wisconsin - MadisonOptionalOptionalYes
Vanderbilt UniversityOptionalOptionalYes
Vassar CollegeOptionalRequired
Wake Forest University*OptionalOptional
Washington and Lee UniversityOptionalOptionalYes
Washington University in St. LouisOptionalOptional
Wellesley CollegeOptionalOptionalYes
Wesleyan University*OptionalOptional
Williams CollegeOptionalRequired
Worcester Polytechnic Institute*OptionalOptional
Yale UniversityRequiredRequired
Yeshiva UniversityOptionalOptional

*School has a Test Optional or Test Flexible policy but may still have requirements for students choosing to submit SAT or ACT scores.

Note: “TBD” reflects a policy to be determined by the college or for which Compass has insufficient information.

Post a comment or send an email to guide@compassprep.com with questions or recommended changes.

About Art Sawyer

Art graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where he was the top-ranked liberal arts student in his class. Art pioneered the one-on-one approach to test prep in California in 1989 and co-founded Compass Education Group in 2004 in order to bring the best ideas and tutors into students' homes and computers. Although he has attained perfect scores on all flavors of the SAT and ACT, he is routinely beaten in backgammon.

22 Comments

  • Randee Fuhrman says:

    Do you think the ACT Board will re-examine the inadequacies of the writing score and re-scale so it makes more sense? My daughter rec’d a 27 but it was the 95th percentile. Low number for high percentile. She also rec’d 10s in each of the 4 domains.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Compass would certainly like if they did — or at least published full data on what they are seeing. My guess is that they will not monkey with the scales, however. Once a scale is set, it’s not a simple thing to reset, as it impacts everyone else who has ever taken the test. ACT has left its other scales unchanged since 1989. It is regrettable that ACT decided to move to 1-36 for Writing — especially before it was ever administered. Recent experiences have proved what we expected — the essay is simply not reliable enough to take its place beside the other scores. Keep in mind that everyone is facing the same situation. Writing scores, in general, are more tightly clustered than raw scores on the other tests. Colleges will see this on their reports. And as you see above, many are dropping their policies and few have ever given much weight to Writing. It sounds like your daughter did quite well, and that remains true even if her 27 is “lower” than her other scores.

  • kenv says:

    Thank you for compiling this list and adding to it throughout the year as other schools may adjust their essay policies. This information is very helpful.

  • […] the NEW SAT Writing section, which will not, and which require the ACT writing section.  This list is quite helpful!  Compass also maintains a list of colleges that require SAT Subject […]

  • EWright says:

    Thank you for the helpful list. I was just wondering how you are obtaining your information? I didn’t see anything on Duke’s site about the new SAT essay & the College Board’s list doesn’t mention Duke at all.

    If College Board doesn’t mention the school at all on its list, do you think it’s risky to assume the essay is not required?

    Also, do you have any sense of whether schools would ever do a reverse – decide to start requiring the essay even if they previously didn’t?

    I’d rather not do the essay, but will if I have to. Thanks again for your help!

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Good questions. When we could not find a definitive answer on a school’s website, we contacted the admissions office directly. Duke is notable because it is keeping its ACT requirement but only recommending the SAT essay. It has a convoluted rationale involving the Subject Tests.

      The College Board list is opt-in, I believe. Schools can submit their information to College Board. As you have found, not all have done so. I also don’t expect the CB list to be maintained as policies shift. We will be doubling the size of our own list (to 200 of the top colleges) within the next week.

      The reverse is possible only for the ACT, since all old SAT students took the essay (although it is true that not all colleges used the essay). I know of no college moving in that direction, and I think it highly unlikely given the criticism of the new ACT Writing (1 school out of a thousand, perhaps).

  • Scott Freeman says:

    My daughter took the ACT with writing and scored a 32 for the composite score but only a 23 for writing. I have two questions. One is whether she can submit the ACT but somehow choose not to submit the writing section, and the other is whether it makes sense to pay for them to re-score it. Thanks in advance for your answer.

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Scott,
      No, your daughter can only submit the test in its entirety. It is up to college policies to determine what they will do with it.

      I don’t like to be cavalier with other people’s money, but my general advice is that a rescoring is merited if a student is disappointed with his or her score. Personally, I’d like to see every April test-taker march on Iowa City with $50 in one hand and a protest sign in the other. But that last bit has nothing to do with your daughter’s situation.

      I’d also consider two ideas:
      1) College’s think little of the ACT Writing. Most never used it in the first place, and even more are dropping it now that schools no longer have to worry about the (formerly) required SAT essay. Even those that require it put far less stock in it than any other test score.
      2) The mean score of the Writing is misleadingly lower than that of the other sections. Her 23 is 83rd percentile according to the figures released by ACT. In the other 4 subject areas, scores from 25-28 are at that percentile. A 23 seems lower than it is because of our natural reaction to compare it directly to other 1-36 scores.

  • joanna says:

    Carnegie Mellon has dropped both SAT and ACT essay requirements

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Joanna, thank you for the information. We’ve updated Carnegie Mellon’s policy and will be updating other schools shortly. More and more colleges are firming up policies for class of 2017).

  • Leah says:

    My son took the SAT and got a 1500 730 reading/writing 770 Math, but his supplemental wring essay he didn’t far well how much weight will rice University put with that

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Leah,
      Rice does not require the SAT essay. Although colleges will still see that score, it’s rare that an essay-optional school would put much weight at all on it. I don’t think you should be concerned about how Rice will view the score.

  • Arvind says:

    I have a question regarding the SAT with essay. I have taken the SAT twice. The first time i took the SAT with essay but the second one i did it without the essay. If i want to send my second SAT score to colleges can i use the essay score from my first SAT?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Arvind,
      Unfortunately, I do not know of any colleges that will combine SAT w/Essay with SAT w/o Essay scores. This creates a situation where — even though most colleges do not require the essay — most students are best advised to take the essay. This seems like over-testing that could easily be eliminated if colleges decided to superscore essay an non-essay results, but admission offices have not yet come around to that way of thinking.

      • Nick says:

        I’m in the same boat as Arvind. My school required me to take the New SAT in March without the essay. I took the New SAT again in May with the essay. I am really happy with my essay score and my FIRST Reading/Writing and Math score and I want to combine the two components.

        • Art Sawyer says:

          Nick,
          Colleges tend to move slowly in response to testing changes and often take direction from the testing organizations. Until this year, there was no ability to send an SAT score without an essay, so policies on superscoring were irrelevant. There was also the sense that “we want all students to be comparable, so if we require ACT w/Writing, then we are going to only accept scores from ACT w/Writing administrations.” Now that both tests are essay optional and the essays come at the end of the test (so there is no impact on test performance), it is completely illogical for superscoring colleges not to superscore the essay. But colleges have just not figured it out yet.

  • Ophelia Lee says:

    I took old SAT three times, now i decided to take the new SAT in October. Will the colleges combine my old and new scores? since a lot of schools do not require essay portion, can i just not take it? Thanks!

    • Ophelia Lee says:

      Also, I am looking at Northeastern’s website, it said that it required SAT with writing, does that mean that Northeastern require the new SAT essay portion?

    • Art Sawyer says:

      Colleges will not superscore sections across new and old SATs. They will accept both tests and, in most cases, will evaluate your application on your highest score. The catch is that if any of your target colleges require the essay, then you will not be able to use your new SAT score without an essay. Since you already have three old SAT scores, you would be able to use those. It’s unfortunate that the 20% of universities requiring the essay are making it so difficult students to avoid the extra testing and expense.

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