College app assessments are changing, but writing isn’t going away


Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels
Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels.

As the COVID-19 pandemic hits the one-year mark, many changes to the college admissions process have become the new normal. During this recent 2020–21 application season, all colleges have become test-optional, and many are already announcing that they will continue being test-optional for the upcoming 2021–22 application year. In addition, the College Board, which administers the SAT, subject tests (SAT-2s) and AP exams announced last month that they will be eliminating the essay section of the SAT after the June 2021 test date and that the hour-long subject tests have been permanently discontinued. The ACT has not announced scrapping their essay. With all the ongoing changes on the horizon, families should be aware that the purpose of testing has not gone away; rather, tests have been replaced with other measurement assessments.

The SAT and ACT essays have been scored components of both exams. The written essay measures the ability of a student to write within a set time (SAT in 50 minutes and the ACT in 40 minutes), organize their ideas in a structure and with a theme, and highlight their critical analysis. The essay sections are optional, but they are scored to show a student’s performance with reading comprehension, writing deduction and outline structure. The essays allow colleges to compare candidates within a standardized, timed setting and uniform essay prompt.

To continue the ability to measure a student’s writing effectiveness, the Common Application (required by nearly all colleges) has added an additional 250-word essay about the effects of Covid-19 on a student’s life and learning environment. Although the essay is optional, this is an important opportunity to reflect on this past year, how a student has shifted family responsibilities and engaged in the community. Colleges want to understand character traits and values that can be extended to the college community. Writing within a short structure still requires an outline, main idea and various paragraphs to trace challenge and growth.

Also, most colleges have added essays to their specific application forms (supplemental essays). For example, this year, the University of Vermont included a choice of five essay prompts to consider: “What Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor best describes you?” and “How do you create meaningful connections with those who have differing opinions than you?” Although the UVM essays are optional, this is a test as to how a student writes within 500 words and shares some insight about their interests with the Admissions Committee.

Some colleges have required additional essays to get to know more about the student’s academic interests. Dartmouth included a choice of six prompts with most referencing authors and thought-leaders within a shorter, 300-word count. Colleges review these writing samples with similar criteria as the SAT and ACT essay. Memorable writing includes a compelling theme, logical structure and personalized tone to get to know the student and assess how they will fit into the campus community.

As for the subject tests, most parents did not have this test option when they were applying to college. The purpose of SAT-2s was to test subject competency in one hour within a multiple-choice format. Similar to the AP exams, the core subjects include history, math, science and foreign languages. The New York Times reported on Jan. 19 that this test was dropped to “… place a greater importance on Advanced Placement tests.”

The AP exams were revised in May of 2020 to an online format. When most high schools were closed during the pandemic, the College Board created the new AP test with one essay prompt or multiple math or science equations. With the new written format, students must show their work, organize the structure of their response, and submit their analysis within the hour. Having solid writing skills to outline top points and draw a persuasive conclusion are all essential elements of the scoring process.

The saying “There is more than one way to skin a cat” rings true with the college application process. Both testing assessments and college essays highlight the need to write structured and engaging analysis and reflections that share a student’s academic knowledge and personal interests. Although various application requirements may evolve, the core root of knowledge and expression are best represented with compelling and insightful writing. Great essays reveal how a student’s past will influence their future.

Margo Bartsch founded College Essay Coach, a full-service college admission business, and has been an adjunct professor in business at Champlain College and at Middlebury College.