Beginning in the spring of 2016, both the ACT and the SAT will no longer require a Writing sub-test – the much-dreaded essay will be purely voluntary. Despite this change in policy, there are several great reasons to still take the optional Writing section. Here are three:
It is still required by certain schools
Deciding whether or not to register for the Writing sub-test may be as simple as reviewing the admissions requirements for your short list of schools. Some colleges will state that the Writing section is a requirement for consideration, while others will specify that the sub-test will not be considered, regardless of your performance. Other schools will state that it is optional or recommended.
Still, this can be a challenging scenario. If you take the ACT/SAT Writing section, and you do poorly, you score could be a hindrance on applications to those colleges and universities that recommend the sub-test or view it as optional (as there is no way to send just some of your results). If your short list of schools later changes, you might waste your time and energy on preparing for an unnecessary exercise (if you opt for the Writing section and later do not need it). If, on the other hand, you excel on the multiple-choice portions, and find that you are competitive for more selective schools that require the written sub-test, you may be unable to apply (if you initially opt against the Writing section).
Your best option is perhaps to use your PSAT scores as a proxy for the ACT and SAT, and to see which colleges and universities fall within your range. If any schools that are a strong maybe consider the Writing sub-test, it is likely worth your while to register for and complete the section.
It can allow you to demonstrate your skills and your determination
The Common Application – and, in fact, almost all college applications – includes a personal statement. This essay can be an excellent opportunity to ensure that the real you stands out from your application data and list of accomplishments. The personal statement’s secondary purpose is ostensibly to prove that you can write at a college level. Of course, admissions officers know that students have months to refine their essays.
The Writing portion of the ACT and SAT, in contrast, is completed under pressure with significant constraints on time and topic. It is often in pressure tests that real skill emerges. Being able to analyze a passage and compose an essay may not be a perfect predictor of collegiate success, but it is indicative of facility with writing.
Whether you should take the ACT/SAT Writing sub-test is another question. If a school on your short list indicates that it will consider the Writing portion of either standardized test, then it is usually in your best interests to register for it.
If you do well, the benefit is obvious. If you perform satisfactorily, you can still earn an advantage simply by attempting a difficult task. Remember that most colleges and universities have far more applicants than seats. Standing out in a sea of prospective students can be a challenge when you have similar application data and average participation levels in extracurricular activities. Taking the optional Writing sub-test is one way to demonstrate that you are not afraid of difficult academic work. Even if you do not do markedly well, your willingness to try can separate you from your fellow applicants who saw the word “optional” and never engaged with the task.
It can help you account for a poor grade
Sometimes, great students earn bad grades. Great students can be distracted by major life events, and they can neglect their homework and projects as a result. Of course, there are also people who realize in the middle of their junior year of high school that they should have made much more of an effort in their English classes. Deciding to take the Writing exam can be one way to demonstrate that the low grade you earned in a single class was an aberration. At the very least, you will be able to demonstrate the seriousness of your intent to improve. If you participate in an interview, you will still need to have an explanation for your prior poor performance, but the Writing section can suggest that you are a proactive and reflective student.
If you do decide to take the ACT/SAT Writing sub-test, be sure to prepare adequately. While any attempt may seem better than none at all, the reality is that a truly poor performance on this section can harm your college applications. Even if your other admissions metrics (i.e. grades) are strong, a poor score on the Writing exam can serve as a warning sign. In other words, if you are going to do it, be sure to do it well. Research the task, practice, and write your heart out.
Brian Witte is a professional SAT tutor with Varsity Tutors. He earned his Bachelor of Science from the University of Washington and holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.
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