Sound bite answer: Always take the SAT and ACT essay. Here’s why:
First, we have to understand whether students should take the “optional” SAT and ACT essay at all. A student might get lucky and apply only to colleges that do not consider the SAT or ACT essay in their admission decisions, but, chances are, at least one college on a student’s list will recommend or require the essay. And, if students do not take the essay but then later change their mind and want to apply to a college that requires the essay, they will either not be able to apply or will have to re-take the SAT or ACT solely for the purpose of getting an essay score. The wise choice is to take the SAT and ACT with the essay at least once.
So why do we recommend taking the essay on every test? Though colleges that recommend/require an SAT or ACT essay only need a score from one test and not every SAT or ACT that a student takes, students are at an advantage when they take the essay every time for two reasons:
- On the ACT in particular, there is no reason to submit all test scores if a student scores her highest in every section on one test (whether to submit all SAT scores is a moral-grey area that families need to decide for themselves and a topic for a different post). For example, if a fictitious student, Tom, scores a 30, 32, 31, and 30 on his English, Math, Reading, and Science scores on the April ACT and then scores a 32, 33, 33, 34 on those sections on the June test, then there is no benefit to sending in the April scores. However, if Tom took the April ACT with the essay and then took the June ACT without the essay, then for some colleges Tom will have to send in his April ACT score (even though it is lower in every section) to be considered for admission to those colleges. Instead, if Tom had taken the June ACT with the essay, then he could just delete the April ACT score for free before applying to colleges.
- On the SAT, students taking the SAT without the essay will usually receive a fifth “experimental section” at the end of the test. However, it is not clear that the 20-minute “experimental section” at the end of the SAT is, in fact, experimental. Page five of the SAT proctor handbook states that “any section of the SAT may contain both operational and pre-test items.” Because it is possible that real questions are in the experimental section, students should take this section just as seriously as all the others. However, there are numerous drawbacks to taking an additional section on which some of the questions count toward a student’s score, such as interfering with a student’s pacing on the real sections if some of the questions were experimental and harder than the real questions would be, fatigue from a longer test (especially if the last experimental section is a Reading section), and the lack of confidence that comes from uncertainty and an inability to psychologically prepare for what the last section will be (it could be Reading, Grammar, or Mathematics). Thus, the experimental section of the SAT introduces unnecessary risk. Our recommendation is to avoid it entirely by taking the essay. Doing so has less downside (the only downside would be if a student does very poorly on the essay, though this is very unlikely if they know a few tricks to getting a great score) and could be beneficial if a student does better in all sections of an SAT or ACT and chooses only to report her best test date scores.
To summarize, on the ACT, students can delete their ACT scores for free and taking the ACT essay every time allows students the option to delete any past scores that are lower than their new scores. On the SAT, even if students are reporting all their scores, it is still likely to their benefit to take the essay in order to avoid the experimental section, which could adversely impact their score.
If students take the test with extended time, then they will never be given an experimental section, regardless of whether or not they take the essay. For this reason, if they take the SAT and will submit all their scores to colleges, then there is no reason to keep taking the SAT with the essay if they have already achieved their target essay score.
Starting in September 2018, all students taking the ACT, with or without the essay, will take the 30 minute experimental section after the Science section (at the end of the test); in contrast to the SAT, however, the ACT is explicit that this fifth section does not count toward a student’s score.