“Better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.“
At Academic Approach, we get asked all the time, “is the essay optional?” The answer is yes, but also no. Technically, the essay on both the ACT and SAT is optional – you can elect to take either test with or without the essay. In terms of scoring, the essay is always a stand-alone score, so it will not impact the composite or overall score of the test.
If that’s the case, why then should you elect to take the essay? The answer to that question really depends on the colleges and universities a student is applying to. While you can take the ACT or SAT without the essay, some schools require the essay. It’s important that you take the essay each time you take an official test in case you want to apply to one of these schools. The last thing you want to do is retake the test after you have already achieved your goal score simply because you need the essay.
If you know that you will only be applying to schools that do not require the essay, you can choose not to take the essay. That is assuming, however, that you will have selected all of your schools at the time of your first test. Unless you can guarantee that you will not add any other schools to your list – and who really can months before they even start their application – our advice is that it’s better to have the essay and not need it than need it and not have it.
I’s worth noting that there is a growing movement among colleges to drop the essay as a requirement for admission, but this is not a pervasive practice yet.
What are the essays like?
The ACT essay gives students 40 minutes to read a prompt, outline, and write an expository essay. The prompt will provide three points of view for students to evaluate and interpret. After asking students to synthesize those ideas, they are asked to form an opinion of their own. While writing an essay in 40 minutes may sound daunting, it’s important to remember that graders will be taking those constraints into account. Students are not expected to produce a perfectly written piece, but rather, a piece that is clear and coherent.
Similar to the ACT essay, the SAT asks students to construct a persuasive essay in 50 minutes. The purpose of the essay, however, is to analyze how an author structures a given text, taking note of their arguments and style.
A learning opportunity
The learning opportunity these essays present is valuable. Most students do not take a targeted essay composition course in high school; instead, they pick up essay writing strategies teacher by teacher. Taking students through a focused curriculum on persuasive writing strategies for crafting a thesis, an introduction, a counter argument, and a conclusion often answers a host of questions they’ve had about their own academic writing and gives them more tools for success on and beyond the test.
Many students wonder what they will get out of preparing for the essay. Aside from the obvious benefit of an improved score, the real value is the ability to practice adapting to different types of writing prompts. Throughout high school and college (not to mention future careers) students are expected to be able to adapt to different audiences and their respective guidelines and expectations. The SAT and ACT essays are opportunities to hone their skills in assessing audience expectations, adapting their writing style, and persuading those audiences with clear, coherent arguments.
“But I don’t get enough essay writing practice.“
We are sometimes surprised when we speak with our students about their coursework and hear the following: “I’m worried about the essay. I’ve only written two papers all semester. I don’t get enough essay writing practice.” As educators, we feel that you can’t get enough persuasive writing practice, and while one or another high school teacher may not require it regularly, college course work certainly will. So let’s get students ready to write!