Over the last half year, there have been major changes in the world of college admissions testing. The SAT returned to the old 1600-point scale, did away with the mandatory writing section, and made it optional instead. The ACT changed the scoring scale for its own optional writing exam and the resulting scores caused an uproar among test-takers that has yet to die down. As an admissions counselor here at College Coach, I’ve had countless students ask me about the importance of the writing score, and I’ve seen a lot of stress over lower-than-anticipated scores on the writing section of these tests. Below is the advice I’ve been giving over these last few months.
Take the Optional Writing Section
Students should always take the optional writing section when presented with the opportunity to do so, irrespective of the conversation around the importance of the score. Many schools require students to take the optional writing section, and not having done so will make your application incomplete and unreviewable. The writing test is like a bicycle helmet: you’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it. So wear your helmet when you bike, and take the optional writing exams on the SAT and ACT.
When I read applications at Reed College, I never looked at the student’s ACT writing score. The score was usually hidden deep on the ACT score report, which was only ever seen by our data entry team when they entered the scores into our electronic database. What came to me, and other admissions officers, was the composite score and the section scores for English, reading, math, and science. Because the composite was unaffected by the writing score, it just didn’t draw much of our attention. I think it’s safe to say that if you’re happy with your ACT composite and section scores, you should not retake the test for the sole purpose of improving your writing score.
Ten years ago, the College Board eliminated the SAT Subject Test for writing and introduced the mandatory writing section on the SAT. Many colleges adjusted to this change by interpreting the writing score more as a Subject Test than a part of the traditional SAT. One of my colleagues referred to the writing section as the “stepchild” of the SAT. Another colleague argued that the writing score was just as important as the other two sections at her institution, and at Reed, the writing section was most strongly correlated with academic success. Up until this year, we would have recommended students retake the SAT if their writing score was aberrant.
What we have yet to see is how colleges will read and interpret the value of the new optional SAT writing section. It’s possible this score will provide some important selection criteria for colleges, but it’s also conceivable that it will be an afterthought except at the most selective institutions. My own personal view is that it’s more likely the score will be akin to the ACT writing section: required, but unimportant in the evaluation process.
So Should I Worry About the Writing Score?
Test scores are important for two reasons: they give colleges an idea of a student’s potential to succeed within an academic setting, and they help colleges move up the rankings by reporting higher averages for their admitted class. Until the SAT and ACT sort out the grading system for their new writing sections, the value of the scores for predicting success will be minimal. And because rankings systems will only take the ACT composite and the SAT reading and math sections into account when they assess the scores of an incoming class, there’s little incentive for colleges to care about the writing score as it relates to college rankings.
In short, you should take the writing section because it is required by many colleges. But because of its secondary role in relation to the rest of these tests, students should be conservative about retesting again and again just to improve that writing score.
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