Yesterday, the College Board announced two changes that had been on the horizon for a while. First, Subject Tests have been discontinued, effective immediately. Second, as of June 5, the optional essay portion of the exam will cease to exist.
To understand the impact of this announcement on high school students, let's consider the genesis of these changes. Subject tests, formerly known as SAT II tests, had already become far less relevant than they once were. Even prior to the pandemic, fewer colleges and universities required--or even recommended--that candidates take these one-hour exams. While Subject Tests allowed students to showcase their expertise in high-level academic disciplines like Chemistry, Biology, Math II, and a host of other subjects, they suffered from two major problems. First, they consisted solely of content-based, multiple choice questions. In an educational climate that increasingly values analytical thinking and problem solving, Subject Tests fell short when it came to assessing critical thinking skills. Second, Subject Tests were redundant. AP exams, which are typically three hours and feature a mixture of question types aimed at determining a student's understanding of robust curricula, have become the coin of the realm.
The disappearance of the optional SAT essay should help unmuddy the waters for students who in previous years would have struggled to decide whether to write the essay. Even prior to the pandemic, only a handful of colleges and universities were requiring or recommending the essay. As a result, fewer and fewer students were opting to spend an additional 50 minutes writing an essay that most admissions offices were not interested in reading. Additionally, the optional essay always carried with it another burden: it just wasn't very realistic. Few of us must produce timed, hand-written writing samples as a meaningful part of our professional lives. Many of us, however, do need to be able to brainstorm, draft an essay or memo, revise, and share the finished product. These are the skills that the college admissions essay requires. While the traditional college admissions essay and the shorter supplemental essays are not free of controversy, they offer a more "real world" way for students to demonstrate their writing skills and articulate their passions and life experiences.
Most who follow these matters closely suspect that the optional ACT essay (the "Writing" portion) will be the next to go. Like the SAT essay, it does not impact the actual test score and has not captured the hearts or minds of college admissions folks. While it is difficult to offer a blanket recommendation for all ACT students, we are going to double down on the advice we had already been giving for the past year or two: unless you have a compelling reason to write the essay, do not bother!
As students assess how to prioritize their time and energy, and as parents evaluate how to best support their children and prioritize their resources, we have a few final recommendations. First, prioritize your school work. If you take AP classes, your effort and performance on the May exams matter more than ever. Second, re-double your effort on the SAT or ACT. A leaner menu of admissions exams likely means that the SAT and ACT will take on heightened significance. Since many colleges have implemented test optional policies, a strong score has the potential to carry even more weight. Finally, continue to enrich your lives with projects, activities, jobs, sports, community service, music, and fun. If you follow your passions now, you may just enjoy the process of writing some college essays in a year or two!
As always, reach out to Peak Performance with any questions. We are here to support you!