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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Drop the admissions essay, and bring back the SAT

It's time to dump college admissions essays, writes Matthew Levey on The 74. Test scores and good grades in challenging courses are strong predictors of college success, evidence shows. Subjective criteria, such as personal statements, make it easy to discriminate against unfavored groups.


In fact, that's why Harvard began requiring a personal essay in 1926, writes Levey, founder of the International Charter School in Brooklyn. The goal was to halt “a Jewish inundation.”  Once the essay was added, the percentage of Jewish undergraduates fell from 28 percent to 15 percent.


Later, when Asian enrollment soared, Harvard's application readers found ways to reject Asian applicants with top grades and test scores by giving them low scores on traits like “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected,” writes Levey. Like those pushy Jews, they weren't the right "fit."


While some selective universities have returned to requiring SAT or ACT scores, saying test scores give achievers from unknown high schools a fairer shot at admission, Harvard remains test optional.


Writing a personal statement has become "a metacognitive exercise in guessing what College X wants, while being told to 'be yourself',” writes Levey.


Some students get help from parents or hired "counselors" to craft their story, while less-advantaged students feel "pressure to elevate their traumas or oppression to catch the eye of the application reader."


If elite colleges need proof of an applicant's writing ability, they could require a graded essay from an 11th-grade class, Levey suggests. "It would be far more insightful – and less subjective than the recommendations that are the bane of many teachers’ existence. (And yes, Harvard also invented the recommendation letter as another way to ensure their students were 'the right sort.')"



11 Comments


superdestroyer
Mar 20

The SAT/ACT is a second data point to show whether the superhigh GPA of an applicant is legit or not. Remember, universities have a ton of data on their students and the high schools where they come from. Any semi-rational admissions officer can tell you which high schools are not doing very well and which ones produce the best students.


Everyone should also remember that a college that offers degrees in drama, virtual arts, music, etc cannot depend totally on the SAT/ACT for admission since those programs depend on other criteria. In addition, many schools use/used the SAT/ACT to firewall off the "hard majors" such as engineering to keep the failure rate/major changing rate down.

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humphrey
Mar 20

Nowadays aren't all the kids using ChatGPT or Bard or (insert LLM of your choice) to write their application essays anyway?

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gulchinator
Mar 19

"To the extent that colleges believe a student’s grades in English or history do not confirm his or her writing ability, they could require a graded essay from one of their junior year classes..."


This does not stop fraud, though. And who is going to submit the essay -- the student or the school?


I think the only way to ballpark writing ability would be to see a copy of the student's SAT Essay.

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Bruce Smith
Bruce Smith
Mar 21
Replying to

Thanks for the update; I didn't know that. And while I like the research essays I referred to in my comment above, as I thought later about it, I still think the best single proof of writing competence I use is the AP English Literature and Composition exam, which requires banging out three essays in two hours, the first two in response to previously unseen passages set at first-year-of-college level.

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tango5204
Mar 19

The evidence is clear that SAT/ACT are excellent predictors of which students will still be enrolled their sophomore year. Universities have a moral and ethical obligation to use every reasonable means to ensure that they are accepting students who have the ability to succeed and graduate from their universities. Unqualified kids end up with debt and without a degree and year(s) of lost productivity.


I'm sure Joanne has discussed "matching": the aligning a student's ability with the rigor of a university. Dropping the requirement for test scores is an obvious workaround to allow less qualified minorities into universities that aren't a "match." There has been enough research that shows by matching ability and rigor more minorities graduate, go to gradu…


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Jim Daniels
Jim Daniels
Mar 19

I think there is some value to the essay, so much as it shows how well or, more often, how poorly many students write. However, as you mention, well-to-do students with poor writing skills can hire a "consultant" to more or less ghostwrite the essay for them.


A former colleague now working in admissions is always talking about how so many essays are laughably contrived tales of childhood woes (despite attending high-priced private schools) or the usual, "as a non-binary, Indigenous, queer, person of color on the spectrum..." gibberish. Lots of "systemic" references to the desire to "address the climate crisis" etc. and other trendy nonsense that students believe are their tickets into the "elite" schools. At the same time,…

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m_t_anderson
Mar 20
Replying to

Jeez, even the College Board is in on the grift. Thank goodness for the ACT.

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