Inevitably, Princeton, Brown, and now the University of Michigan have followed Harvard’s lead and announced that beginning with the class of 2023, they will no longer require applicants to submit the SAT or ACT with essay.
On one hand, the decision is understandable. As I’ve written about, the SAT essay is, to put it bluntly, a terrible assignment that bears virtually no relationship to the type of writing done in college. On the other hand, it serves to reveal whether a student is capable of cobbling together reasonably coherent, grammatical prose, which is unfortunately not something that can be taken for granted. Even if an essay score provides very limited information, the actual essay can provide important insight into an applicant’s writing skills. It also provides a check on the personal statement, allowing adcoms to view writing that is indisputably not padded by a parent or tutor.
If colleges are willing to give applicants the benefit of the doubt, that’s obviously their prerogative, but the the fact that universities are framing the decision in terms of expanding access strains credulity. Princeton Dean of Admission Janet Lavin Rapelye, for example, was quoted in the Washington Post as stating that the university dropped the requirement…out of concern that testing costs or logistical issues would deter some students from applying.
Just to be clear, Princeton currently charges just over $70,000 in yearly tuition and fees, and its application fee alone ($65) is almost identical to the fee for the SAT with essay. (Brown and Stanford are similarly expensive and have even higher application fees at $75 and $90 respectively.) Yes, to be fair, Princeton has one of the most generous financial aid policies in the country, but there is still something more than a little ironic about a university whose sticker price exceeds what many applicants’ families earn in a year claiming to worry about the financial effects of a $64.50 exam (for which low-income students can obtain waivers).
Also a tad ironic is the fact that high schools have offered the ACT without writing for years, forcing applicants to schools requiring the essay to sign up for an additional Saturday administration. Yet somehow this never seemed to bother elite universities; only when the SAT got involved did the concern suddenly erupt.
Whatever altruistic motives colleges may claim, in practice this move — like the University of Chicago’s decision to go test-optional — has less savory motives as well.
As WaPo reports, Those schools are dropping the [essay] requirement because they wanted to ensure that the extra cost of essay testing did not drive applicants away.
There are two ways to view this statement: the intended meaning, presumably, is that poorer applicants should not have to face the extra financial hurdle of paying for a Saturday test administration if their school-day SAT does not include the essay section. That’s a perfectly reasonable point, and one that deserves to be dealt with in some capacity.
However, the other, less charitable interpretation, is that these schools want to ensure that their application numbers remain as high as possible so that their acceptance rates can remain as low as possible. Schools are under intense pressure to continually admit a smaller percentage of students — any uptick in acceptance rates could signal a loss of cachet, resulting in fewer applicants the following year and setting off a downward (or rather an upward) spiral. Because the Ivies, Stanford and, to a lesser extent, Michigan all compete for applicants, any move that allows students to apply more easily to one of these institutions poses a threat to the competitiveness of its rivals. As a result, peer colleges effectively have no choice but to follow suit or they risk falling behind.
Brown and Princeton have announced that in place of the SAT or ACT essay, applicants must submit a graded English or History paper. As Princeton’s Rapelye says, “We really value writing…It’s a required part of our curriculum. We want to be able to assess a student’s ability before they get to us.”
Classwork is, of course, a far better indicator of an applicant’s writing — but only if it is truly the applicant’s own work. The reality, however, is that any aspect of the application not obtained under proctored conditions can be gamed, which is precisely why the SAT and ACT essays were valuable. Obviously, yes, applicants can pay staggering sums for tutoring, but ultimately they must sit down and take the test themselves.
Realistically, it is unlikely that more than a small percentage of applicants would go so far as to submit plagiarized work, but students naive or desperate enough to do so are not the issue. It is, however, very easy for writing tutoring to drift oh-so-subtly across a line, especially when wealthy parents are paying vast sums to ensure their progeny are competitive at elite colleges. And make no mistake: if Princeton and Brown ask applicants to submit a graded paper, wealthy families will hire graduates of schools like, say, Princeton and Brown to make sure said paper is top-notch. Or what about students who even just receive help from parents who work as, say, editors or English teachers?
Concerns over students submitting work with which they have received an inappropriate amount of assistance are why many colleges, including Princeton, place restrictions on the type and amount of aid students may obtain. Princeton’s own tutoring center, for example, states unequivocally that Students are in violation of University regulations if they engage the services of private tutors, and university-sponsored tutoring is capped at 15 hours per semester. In contrast, admissions officers will have no way of policing the essays they receive. And it’s naive to expect applicants to abide by the honor system, regardless of how seriously Princeton itself may take it.
In addition to tipping the scale in wealthy applicants’ favor, the move may also further disadvantage applicants from poor schools: a less-than-stellar showing on the SAT/ACT essay from an applicant with very high grades could be explained away as a result of time pressure, anxiety, etc.; however, a student who submits an A+ paper with questionable mechanics will undoubtedly have his or her preparation called into question. Students at weak high schools often do not realize just how how far behind they are and, lacking a basis for comparison, may unwittingly disqualify themselves by submitting subpar work.
Now obviously, barring exceptional circumstances, students with serious deficiencies in their writing do not belong at Princeton! But the point is that well-off applicants whose writing is significantly weaker than their grades would suggest (and there are many) will have the opportunity to camouflage that fact, whereas poorer applicants generally won’t. Despite their considerable imperfections, the SAT and ACT essays at least placed everyone on equal footing; a class paper does exactly the opposite.