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As Peers Abandon SAT and ACT Essays, Harvard Holds On

Harvard acceptance letters are sealed by members of the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid prior to being mailed off.
Harvard acceptance letters are sealed by members of the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid prior to being mailed off.
By Daphne C. Thompson, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard will continue requiring College applicants to submit the essay portion of the SAT or ACT, according to Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Rachael Dane, despite that peer institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Brown, and Cornell have moved to make the essay optional.

The SAT and ACT essay portions—which currently require students to write an organized response to a prompt in 25 and 40 minutes, respectively—have divided the Ivy League in a debate over whether the tests can accurately assess an applicant’s writing ability.

For now, Harvard still requires applicants to submit either the SAT or the ACT with writing, but acknowledges the recent policy changes at other colleges, according to Dane.

“Over the next few years, we will carefully study how predictive an element the overall writing section of the SAT is as it relates to academic work at Harvard,” Dane wrote in an email.

Penn decided this summer to make the SAT and ACT essays optional, citing their “weaker predictive power” in gauging matriculated students’ success at the school. Removing the essay requirement may benefit first-generation, Latino, and black applicants who are statistically less likely to "have complete testing profiles," Penn's John McLaughlin said in a press release.

Still, Parke P. Muth, a former associate dean of admissions at the University of Virginia who now runs a college consulting business, was skeptical of Penn’s reasoning, saying that a transcript alone may not predict an applicant’s academic preparedness as well as a transcript and associated test scores.

“They’re going to have to prove that transcripts in and of themselves predict success just as well,” Muth said.

In response to criticisms of the writing section’s evaluative capability, the governing bodies of the SAT and ACT will debut reworked essay sections this year. Beginning in March, the SAT essay will be optional, 25 minutes longer, and feature a more specific, text-based prompt. The ACT will lengthen its essay by 10 minutes and ask students to evaluate three perspectives on a societal issue.

Muth said the redesigned essay tests were “more in line with a real critical thinking exercise” and emphasized that colleges should wait and analyze data from test-optional schools before renouncing standardized testing.

But for the time being, Muth added that as a highly selective and visible school, Harvard and its admissions policies carry extra weight. If Harvard eliminates the tests, Muth said, “a lot more schools will be encouraged to as well.”

—Staff writer Daphne C. Thompson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @daphnectho.

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