Test Prep

How to Decide Whether You Should Test With An Essay

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When you register for the SAT or ACT, you may notice you have multiple options. For the SAT, you can decide whether to take the test with or without an essay, and for the ACT, you’ll be asked whether you want to take the exam with writing or without it.

The additional sections on these tests require more cost and more testing time -- not to mention additional hours preparing and practicing. So how can you decide whether or not you should add an essay or writing portion to your test?


Check Your College List

The best way to determine whether or not you should add essays to your test session is to first consult the list of colleges where you plan to apply. Each school has its own application requirements, and these can change from one year to the next. This means that a school requiring an essay in 2018 may not require one in 2019. So once you put together your college list, go to each school’s website and find out whether the essay is required.

“The more selective the school, generally the more likely it is to require an essay, but there are outliers to that,” said Mark Montgomery, PhD, of Great College Advice, a Colorado-based college admissions consulting firm. For example, Duke University says on its website that SATs must include the essay and ACTs must be taken with writing as part of the application requirements. Princeton University similarly indicates that you must submit the essay/writing as part of your test scores.

However, as Montgomery points out, there are outliers -- some schools that aren’t necessarily considered among the most selective in the country require you to submit your test scores with essay/writing. That’s why it’s essential for you to check in with each school about its specific requirements.

What If You Don’t Have A List Yet?

The decision of whether or not to test with essays becomes even more murky if you aren’t yet sure where you’ll be applying to college.

“So many students are taking the test well before they make decisions about where to go,” Montgomery said. “They also don't know whether they’ll need essays for things like scholarship consideration. My advice to all students is, unless you’re absolutely sure that your schools don’t look at essays, register to take the tests with the essay. It's a little bit extra money and more headache but you want to open doors and not close them.”

After all, he advises, if you decide to apply to a school or for a particular scholarship at the last minute and you can’t do so without the essay, you’ll be shutting yourself out of potential opportunities if you never took it.

Writing Students Aren’t Typically at Higher Essay Risk

Some students believe that if they’re applying to a creative writing or literature program, they’ll be more likely to need an essay before they apply. However, that’s typically not the case, Montgomery says.

Creative writing programs may be more likely to ask students to submit supplemental essays as part of their applications, but not necessarily along with their test scores, unless the university as a whole has such a requirement.