Beyond The SAT/ACT: The Essay Portion and Subject Tests – Should You Take Them?

Our previous post delved into the meaning behind “test-optional” policies that universities are transitioning to in response to COVID-19. But that’s not all – the admissions landscape is more than just one standardized test that strives to assess a range of applicants’ academic capabilities.

In recent years, many universities, including the most selective ones, have already begun to taper off the requirements for the SAT/ACT essays and SAT Subject Tests as they aim to be more inclusive by reducing the number of hurdles for students to meet the baseline application requirements. Some universities have stated that the SAT/ACT essays and SAT Subject Tests are often not indicative of students’ academic performances. They find that AP exams and school grades are better and more reliable predictors of students’ academic success in college in comparison.

With COVID-19 affecting the accessibility to testing, the vast majority of US universities have made SAT/ACT essays and SAT/ACT Subject Tests optional, indicating their reduced importance.

Let’s dive a little deeper into the changing policies around SAT/ACT essays and SAT Subject Tests, as well as our recommendations for students who are preparing for university applications this coming fall.

The Writing Test: Is this goodbye?

The SAT Essay and ACT Writing Test have been a hot topic in college admissions for the past few years. While the College Board, the company that administers the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, and AP Tests, and ACT have made the essay portion optional, some universities required or highly recommended the submission of test scores to include the essay portion. Notably, the University of California schools were some of the remaining few institutions that still required the essay portion pre-COVID-19.

Recent changes in admissions led to a drop of this requirement, including all Ivy Leagues and UCs. In fact, most schools but 10 (you can find a full list of these universities below) have changed their policies of the essay test to “optional”.

Schools that still require essay scores:
United States Military Academy
Martin Luther College
Molloy College
Soka University of America
University of Montana Western (required for the ACT but not for the SAT)

Schools that still recommend submitting essay scores:
Abilene Christian University
Berry College
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

In the past, the general advice to students was to prepare for, take, and submit the essay portion.

Now that essays are no longer required by most universities, we recommend our students to deprioritize the essay, and only take the section if it does not require extra preparation for them to score a 7 or above (out of 8).

If the student finds the essay writing to be burdensome or requiring extensive preparation to do well in, they should consider dropping it completely and focus on the SAT/ACT multiple-choice sections and other areas of their application.

What about Subject Tests?

Historically, the SAT Subject Tests have been used by students to further demonstrate their strengths in specific subjects. Many of the most selective colleges and universities required or highly recommended that applicants take two to three subject tests relevant to their intended major.

However, the weight of these assessments has been reducing. In recent years, many selective schools such as Tufts, Boston College, and Northwestern have transitioned the requirement of subject tests from ‘recommended’ to ‘considered’.

Like the SAT/ACT Essays, COVID-19 had led to many schools dropping these requirements. In fact, MIT stated they are going ‘test-blind’ when it comes to SAT Subject Tests, meaning they won’t consider the scores even when submitted.

That being said, Subject Test requirements for specific majors, such as Engineering, will likely remain highly recommended for selective programs. So make sure you check the requirements for your school as well as your proposed major.

We advise students, especially rising seniors who will be focusing their energy on SAT/ACT this coming fall, to prioritize the SAT/ACT over any Subject Tests. If the other components of their profile are in good standing and the student has the capacity, then they can plan to take the SAT Subject Tests to supplement their applications, especially if they are applying to a major that requires Subject Tests.

Your case could be different.

The suggestions above are general to most students. If you feel that your case could be different, we are happy to take a closer look and provide you with individualized recommendations specific to your needs. Contact us to schedule a consultation!