Should You Take the SAT Optional Essay Exam?

Students taking exam, teacher in background
SAT writing section. Peter Cade / Getty Images

Students registering to take the SAT are immediately confronted with a decision: should they sign up for the optional essay or not? The essay adds 50 minutes to the exam time, and $15 to the cost. It can also add some stress to what is already a rather miserable morning.

So just how important is the SAT optional essay in the college admissions process? As you'll see below, much less important than it used to be.

Does the SAT Optional Essay Matter?

Nationally, fewer than 30 colleges currently require the SAT optional essay, and that number keeps decreasing. Most top schools including all of the Ivy League do not require or recommend the essay, and for most college applicants the essay exam isn't necessary.

The Pre-2016 SAT Essay Section

In 2005, the College Board changed the SAT exam to include a multiple-choice grammar section and a 25-minute essay writing component. This new SAT writing section immediately came under significant criticism because of the short time allowed for writing the essay, and because of an MIT study showing that students could raise their scores by simply writing longer essays and including bigger words.

In the first couple of years after the change in the SAT, very few colleges and universities placed significant (if any) weight on the SAT writing score. As a result, the general impression had been that the SAT writing score didn't matter for college applicants.

That said, a 2008 study by the College Board actually showed that of all the SAT sections, the new writing section was the most predictive of college success. As a result, even though few colleges were happy with the idea of a 25-minute essay, more and more schools gave weight to the SAT writing section as they made their admissions decisions. Some colleges also use the SAT writing score to place students in the appropriate first-year writing class. A high score would sometimes place a student out of college writing altogether.

In general, then, the SAT writing score did matter.

The Change to an Optional Essay

In 2016, the College Board entirely revamped the SAT to make it less about aptitude and more about what students actually learn in school. The exam changed, in fact, to be much more like the ACT, and many believe the change was motivated by the fact that SAT was losing market share to ACT. Along with the changes to the multiple choice exam, the essay section became optional.

The fallout from that change was not what most would have predicted. With the pre-2016 exam, the schools that cared most about the essay section tended to be selective colleges and universities. When the essay became optional, however, the great majority of the nation's most selective schools decided to not require the optional essay, and most don't even recommend the essay.

Colleges that Require the SAT Optional Essay

None of the Ivy League schools require or recommend the essay. Top liberal arts colleges such as Pomona College, Williams College, and Amherst College do not require or recommend the exam. Duke recommends the essay but does not require it.

Indeed, the number of schools that either require or recommend the optional essay section has been dwindling ever since 2016. Some schools still do require the essay, most notably all of the University of California campuses. Most other schools that require the optional essay, however, are not overly selective: DeSales University, Delaware State University, Florida A&M, Molloy College, the University of North Texas, and a handful of other schools. It's quite possible that if the UC system ever drops the SAT essay requirement, the College Board will find there's little point in continuing to offer the exam.

That said, you will definitely want to take the SAT optional essay exam if you are applying to a school that requires it, and it's probably a good idea to take it if any of your top choice schools recommend it. The best place to learn what a college requires or recommends is on the school's website. The College Board has a search tool for identifying college SAT essay policies, but those policies change so regularly that some results will be out of date. You'll also find that many results from a College Board search simply say "contact institution for information."

A Final Word About the SAT Optional Essay

Several years ago, most college admissions advisors would have recommended that you take the optional essay exam if you are applying to selective schools. Today, the essay seems far less essential unless you are applying to a UC campus or about 20 other schools that still require the writing test. For the majority of college applicants, the SAT optional essay is likely to be a waste of time, money, and energy.