Do Colleges Really Care About the SAT Essay?

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Although the SAT essay is optional, there is a general consensus that most “optional” parts of college applications are actually “required” if a student wants to maximize his or her chances of acceptance. This view usually applies to any optional supplemental essay prompts that colleges may ask because those essays offer students an opportunity to share additional personal insight that usually isn’t found elsewhere in the application.

The SAT essay, however, is an entirely different exercise: it’s a 50-minute rhetorical analysis essay at the end of a three-hour test. This type of standardized writing is designed to objectively test a high school student’s writing ability, but is that truly the case?

Some colleges and universities think not. As a result, more and more schools are dropping the SAT essay requirement. Which brings us to the question: “Do colleges really care about the essay?”

Essentially, there are two sides to this issue:

Schools that do require the essay feel that strong writing is a good indicator of college readiness and that more information allows them to better evaluate applicants. The University of California is known for valuing as much information as students can fit into their applications, so it’s no surprise that the UCs haven’t dropped the SAT essay requirement. Whereas many highly selective colleges and universities have done away with the essay requirement, the UCs have notably stood firm in their decision.

Schools that do not require the essay feel that they have enough writing material to evaluate applicants via personal statements and supplemental essays. Many of these schools also cite the potential burden that cost may impose upon underprivileged students. Since the essay is optional, there is an additional fee in order to register for it, and additional fees can interfere with a school’s policy of equal access to as many students as possible.

Recognizing both sides of the issue, you have a few options to consider regarding whether to take the SAT essay. According to the College Board's SAT Suite of Assessments Annual Report, 68% of test takers opted to take the essay. It’s important to understand that this statistic does not take into consideration the spate of schools that recently dropped the requirement for the Fall 2019 college application season.

That said, it is imperative that for each school on your college list, look up the school-specific SAT essay policy. You can always call the school if the information is not readily available online. Some schools don’t require the essay, but they may recommend taking it. Other schools may not even look at your essay score in the admissions process. Once you do your research, you will have a clearer idea on how to approach taking the essay. If the schools on your list want nothing to do with the SAT essay, feel free not to take it! However, if the schools on your list recommend (but don’t require) taking the essay, you should do so, aiming to score as high as possible.

If you don’t get a stellar score, don’t fret. The SAT essay is generally considered one of the least important aspects of a student’s college application, so an average essay score isn’t necessarily an automatic indication that you need to retake the test. The foremost focus should be on your composite score. If you apply to one of the 20 or so schools that do require the essay, you should adequately prepare for it strive for the best score possible.

So, do colleges really care about the SAT essay? The answer is it depends. Do the necessary research to see what’s required of you and then plan accordingly. And if you want to play it safe, you’ll probably want to take the essay once and then focus on other aspects of your college application.


Jon G. is originally from Houston, Texas. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Harvard University and is currently one of the resident English gurus at Elite Prep Los Angeles. Nothing makes him more proud and pumped up than watching his students succeed. When it comes to hitting the books, Jon recommends starting early and studying in increments to avoid burnout. He's a huge basketball fan, loves green tea, and his favorite vocabulary word is "seditious."