When the College Board announced the new version of the SAT for 2016, English students everywhere groaned in a collective expression of angst. Among many other alterations, come 2016, the written essay of the SAT (which when introduced in 2005 brought the grading scale from a 1600 to a 240) will be optional. Not only optional, but completely changed. Where before the essay sought to let students express and argue an opinion, the new format will have students look at an argument and analyze the author’s stance and devises without any personal evaluation on the argument’s subject.
For those of us – myself included – who have never found the more technical mathematics side of the SAT to be our forte, this is not the beginning of our struggles with how the writing section has been treated. Back when I took the SAT, my writing score was by far my highest. Unfortunately teachers, parents, and anyone else involved with the college process had said many a time that colleges hardly even take the writing score into account compared to reading or math. Even before the new SAT system came out I consistently ranted against the practice of disregarding the essay. True, colleges already have personal essays on their application, but the SAT essay specifically has its merits.
According to the College Board itself, based on studies involving college bound seniors the writing sections is the most indicative of success in college of the three sections, beating correlation scores in both math and reading. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to brush it aside when it has potential to be a strong predictor for admissions staff to consider. Taking that away shoves the students who rely on their writing skills in school to cover for any prowess they lack in the more traditional sections into a box they just can’t fit in.
Of course the word “optional” is tricky when it comes to applying to college. More than likely most high schoolers in 2016 and beyond will continue to complete the essay portion of the SAT because it will still look good to show that they have put in the extra work – just like with those “optional” essays on the common app supplement. First rule of college apps: nothing is optional.
To add to the frustration, the essay section is changing to be even less about the student’s own ideas. While extracting rhetorical devices and breaking down another author’s argument does require skill (AP Language anyone?) the new essay sections loses what made it such an interesting novelty for a standardized test. While taking a standardized test can feel robotic and restricted, bubbling and bubbling and confined to one right answer per question, the writing portion allowed for creativity and expression. As it stands now, the essay asks the student for their personal stance on something. While communicating what some third party’s argument is is difficult, something greater can be taken from someone who can put their own thoughts into a concise and artful composition without stepping on any toes. The new design drifts back into the looking-for-a-specific-answer category.
No matter what, writing is still a huge part of the college application process, be it on the SAT or not. My advice would be to continue to embrace the essay even after it goes into the nebula of optional material. If the number the College Board assigns to you as a grade pleases you, cherish it! It can mean a lot more about your potential than the weight admissions departments give it can say.