Harvard University has announced that it will be dropping the SAT/ACT Essay requirement, beginning with the class of 2023. Along with Princeton, Yale, and Stanford, Harvard was one of the last holdouts to require that students submit this component.
I wrote a series of critiques of the redesigned essay when the new test was first rolled out, and I still believe that it is deeply problematic – I think colleges are justified in viewing it with suspicion. At the same time, however, I believe that there are very compelling reasons for schools to continue requiring some sort of writing sample completed under proctored conditions.
Although some of my initial concerns about the SAT essay were unfounded, the principal issue remains that it is fundamentally a nonsense assignment, one presented in muddled language that says one thing and means something else. It asks students to analyze how an author uses “evidence” to build an argument, but seeks to remove outside knowledge from the equation. In reality, this is an absurd proposition: any even slightly substantive analysis of “evidence” is impossible without actual knowledge of a topic.
As a result, the only thing left to do is to explain how the text works rhetorically, even though students are also not expected to have any particular knowledge of rhetorical terminology. Students can explain how specific words, phrases, etc. are used to convey a point, but because they are technically barred from making any judgments of their own, and from agreeing/disagreeing with the author’s claim, they are effectively restricted to describing rather than truly analyzing.
Of course, it does not quite work this way in practice. In reality, students frequently write such things as “Author x makes a compelling argument that…” which is in fact both a judgment and an implicit agreement. This leads to a much subtler and more insidious problem, namely that students are encouraged – or, at the very least, permitted – to conflate the impression of persuasiveness with actual persuasiveness. That is, they are permitted to take the text at face value, even though their knowledge of its topic may be virtually nonexistent. If an author cites impressive-sounding statistics or explains things in a reasonable manner, well then, students are permitted to treat those things as evidence that an argument is actually compelling.
The difference between “the author seeks to create a compelling argument by using impressive statistics” and “the author uses impressive statistics to create a compelling argument” might seem exceedingly minor, but mentally it is a chasm. The former casts things in terms of authorial intent, whereas the latter assumes that appearance is reality. The fact that students can be rewarded for writing the latter undermines one of the primary purposes of studying rhetoric, namely to develop a critical stance and understand that what appears to be is not necessarily what is. But that kind of analysis requires a recognition of how rhetoric and content interact, which is in turn impossible without subject-specific knowledge.
The assignment also misrepresents how different types of writing are approached and in some ways encourages students to misconstrue the texts as well.
The passages used for SAT essays are effectively the same type of writing used for Critical Reading on the pre-2016 SAT – that is, they are argumentative but fairly moderate in tone, and largely advance their claims through reasoned argumentation. In other words, typical “serious” mainstream writing of the sort that students are likely to encounter in college.
Thus, when students write things like “the author uses reason and logic to persuade readers,” they are merely stating the obvious. Virtually every example of this type of writing appeals to some form of reasoned argumentation – that’s the entire point of it! That fact is so banal as to be taken for granted, and no college professor would expect students to call attention to it. Rather, students are expected to engage with the ideas themselves.
I point this out because I have actually tutored college students who did not understand that these things were intended to be left unsaid, and who consistently went out of their way to mention, for example, that academic articles were written in a very “academic” way. They did not grasp the rules of the game, so to speak. This is one more piece of “unlearning” that
college professors poorly paid adjuncts may need to contend with.
Another anecdote, slightly off-topic: a few months back, when I was looking to hire an editorial assistant, I asked applicants to send a brief writing sample. One recent Harvard graduate sent a section of a paper that contain no argument or analysis whatsoever, but rather consisted solely of restatements of the writers’ arguments in flowery and overwrought prose (of the sort that, not coincidentally, tends to populate the pages of The Crimson). Having grown up a couple of miles from Cambridge and become aware at a relatively young age of the myriad factors that drive Harvard undergraduates admissions, I can’t say I was astonished. But still, I think the correct word here is “appalling.”
Also to that point, I’ve noticed that students have a tendency to exaggerate the drama of these relatively moderate texts, merely in order to have something to say. Again, this type of writing is typically read for content rather than form for precisely that reason: there is just not that much in the way of rhetorical interest or heightened language.
Consider the following statement: Many [critics] have reiterated familiar worries about the safety of self-driving vehicles. That’s an important topic, one that needs debate. But an even greater risk is that, when considering these questions, we might lose sight of one of the major projected benefits of self-driving cars: that they are expected to ultimately save lives of tens of thousands of drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.
The tone is relatively balanced, but a student might very well be rewarded for ignoring that fact and writing something along the lines of “The author makes an impassioned plea for self-driving cars, explaining that they will ‘save tens of thousands of drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.’ Readers will be overcome by this emotional appeal.”
Given the current political climate, I think it is self-evident why students should not be encouraged to misrepresent the extremity of statements, or to interpret genuinely balanced, reasoned assertions as over-the-top histrionic. (Nor, conversely, should they be encouraged to view outrageous and potentially dangerous claims as reasonable merely because they are presented in reasonable language.)
So obviously, I more than understand where Harvard, as well as other schools that have dropped the essay, are coming from. Even if they think the ACT essay is acceptable, they can’t very well require it while dropping it for the SAT. It’s all or nothing.
In addition, questions of access are a genuine concern. The school-day SAT does not necessarily include the essay, and not all students – even prospective Harvard applicants – will realistically be able to sit for a second administration on a weekend. To assume that all applicants can easily sign up for, afford, and travel to a Saturday exam is to overlook the very real logistical (familial, economic, transportational) hurdles that some students face.
But all that said, there remains one very compelling reason for colleges to continue to require some sort of test-based essay, namely that it is the sole piece of applicants’ writing that is guaranteed to be an authentic example of their work.
Now, it is of course true that what some students produce for a standardized test may not be representative of their work in general. But even so, it still provides some very basic – and important – information about the level of their writing. It unfortunately cannot be taken for granted that students, even ones with very high grades and in some cases test scores, can put their thoughts on paper in a coherent manner. If students are writing jumbled sentences or are unable to cobble together even minimally cogent prose, that’s information colleges deserve to have. Whether they want to know is of course a different story.
The fact that schools are denying themselves access to potential red flags about academic ability is a sign of an increasingly tenuous relationship between the “college experience” and what goes on in the classroom.
And the reality is that college essays are not always a reliable indicator of what students can produce, as admissions officers should be well aware.
What is often ignored in discussions about equity is that the benefit for poorer students is counterbalanced by an equal, and perhaps even larger one, for wealthy students – a situation that is deeply unfair to the students who actually do all the work themselves. Historically, colleges have flagged applicants whose essay scores stood in too stark a contrast to their personal statements. That is obviously not the case for the vast majority of applicants, but it is sometimes a real concern. Now, however, there is no basis for comparison.
On one hand, it is admirable to extend to students the benefit of the doubt. But with competition for slots so vicious at the very top schools, and with families willing to pay thousands upon thousands of dollars for essay “coaching” from former admissions officers, this kind of trust is unfortunately – and perhaps deliberately – naïve, particularly if an enrollment target for full-pay students must be met. Well-off Ivy League applicants are not infrequently coached to within an inch of their life; the essay can serve as a reality check.
Indeed, some British universities have recognized this problem and are downplaying the importance of personal statements. As an admissions worker at the University of Bristol was quoted in The Guardian as saying, “They’re too unreliable, too easy to get a lot of help with writing, and too easy to write things that aren’t terribly true.” (Can you imagine a representative from any American school ever admitting that?)
In addition, many students who are strong personal writers have analytical writing skills that lag far behind. Since analytical writing makes up almost all of the writing that gets done in college, it doesn’t seem outrageous to require something that vaguely approximates it.
It is of course possible that with 40,000 applications to contend with, admissions offices no longer have the staffing capacity to deal with concerns about mismatches between essays and personal statements, and that logistically, the simplest solution is to drop the essay. This is yet another side effect of application inflation.
But eliminating the essay requirement will only encourage more students to apply to schools where they have no real chance of being admitted, causing the number of applications to balloon even more, and squeezing admissions offices further.
And then there’s the one-upmanship factor: from a purely ego-driven standpoint, it’s unlikely that Harvard can tolerate the prospect of losing potential admits to Columbia or, god forbid, Cornell over something as trifling as a standardized-test essay.
The fact that most elite colleges required students to submit the writing portion of an exam for decades suggests, however, that there is some sort of value to be gained from it, and that the decision to drop it is not merely a simple matter of making the admissions process more equitable.
If schools are concerned about access, for example, they could easily band together and pressure the College Board to ensure that the essay was included for all school-day testing. (As a side note, if the College Board is so committed to equity, then why would it not automatically require all of the components of the test for the school-day exam in the first place? Otherwise, students who are unable to sit for an additional test but who want to apply to schools that require the essay are still placed at a disadvantage. Does the College Board just not want to pay for graders? It is the fact that the SAT is being used as a graduation requirement in some states, and that states don’t care about the essays?)
Likewise, if the objection is to the specifics of the redesigned SAT essay, they could also pressure the College Board to change it to something closer to the ACT essay. It need not be all or nothing.
But the fact is, none of these things have even been proposed – to the best of my knowledge, at least – and the fact that colleges are willingly renouncing yet one more element of transparency in the admissions process is in itself deeply telling.