College Renounces Standardized Test Essays

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The essay portion of standardized tests will no longer be evaluated by Swarthmore’s Admissions department, the college announced in a press release on August 28.

The recent decision of the College Board to make the essay optional in the SAT’s next iteration, which will debut in March of 2016, paved the way for Swarthmore Admissions to heave the essay out entirely from the admissions process.

“The essay subscore only very modestly correlated to academic performance,” Director of Admissions J.T. Duck wrote in an email, referring to a comparison the college did of recent Swarthmore graduates.

The other subscores had sturdier correlations to academic performance, he added.

“We felt the time was right to update our standardized testing policy to better reflect our focus on the non-Essay sections of both tests,” Duck said.

Noah Landay ’19 commended the decision, recounting his experience taking the SAT essay as “this terribly formulaic, soulless kind of writing.”

He said he did not like the 25-minute time constraint, the difficulty editing his handwritten essay, and that a high scoring essay followed a fixed regimen poorly applicable to real world writing.

Duck said that rescinding the essay requirement could also have positive implications for attracting underrepresented students to Swarthmore.

The SAT and ACT are more expensive with an essay—The new SAT will cost $54.50 with the essay, and $43 without, while the ACT is $56.50 with an essay and $39.50 without.

“Our office is committed to ensuring that our admissions process is accessible to all students who may thrive at the College, and that includes students coming from schools or backgrounds where college planning resources are scarce and who may not have the time, the financial means, or the guidance to take the longer tests,” he said.

Rebecca Astatke ’17 agreed that the essay was a barrier for low-income students. She took the ACT sans writing section for free because of a high school grant, but had to take the test again with the writing section because of a requirement by one of the colleges she was applying to. She paid the full cost of the  second test.

However, there was some correlation between the essay score and performance at Swarthmore. And Admissions used to ask applicants to submit two 500-word essays with their Common App, but clipped that requirement to one 250-word essay for the 2014-2015 admissions cycle.  Together, those choices detract from the number of tools Swarthmore has to evaluate applicants’ writing aptitude.  

“I think increasing the [word] limit to 300 or 500 words would be nice,” Landay said. “It’s not necessarily a mark of a good writer to make things concise, sometimes you do need more space to write.”

Astatke disagreed, suggesting a more expansive requirement may deter applicants.

Indeed, Swarthmore received 7,817 applications when they clipped their essay requirement in the 2014-2015 admissions cycle, a leap of 41% from the 5,540 applications they received the year before.

Duck disclaimed any erosion in the emphasis Admissions places on writing.

“From an applicant’s Common Application Personal Statement or QuestBridge Application essays and Why Swarthmore responses, we have a few examples of each applicant’s writing to consider,” he said.

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