Colleges Use SAT Essay

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • Nov
  • 10
  • 2005

Reading the Detroit News Web site, I see that I am a bit behind the times. As college admission boards debate over a borderline student, the College Board will provide one more item to throw a student over the edge in either direction. Apparently, colleges have made the decision to look at an applicant’s SAT essay, something that is apparently readily available from the College Board Web site. There are two things I notice about this, one academic and one pragmatic.

The Academic

A spirited debate I had with a colleague today makes me question the decision, though I do ultimately think it’s a wise choice when a candidate is borderline. If colleges begin looking at the SAT essay in considering an applicant, they get a snapshot of that applicant’s ability to plan and write an essay in 25 minutes. Does a 25-minute writing sample say enough about an applicant? Does that primarily tell how quickly the applicant writes instead of how well that applicant writes?

Some people simply need more time to organize thoughts into a final draft, a draft that best represents their thinking. The traditional college essay provides this time, but the Detroit News article suggests that a college essay can easily be plagarized, leading admissions boards to a faulty understanding of the candidate. The SAT essay provides a method of obtaining an honest and raw example of the applicant’s writing.

In a survey of 374 colleges and universities conducted by Kaplan, the test preparation company, 58 percent said they would use the SAT essay to evaluate whether students had received outside help on their application essays in cases where there appeared to be discrepancies in the applicants’ writing levels; 13 percent said they would compare the essays for all applicants.

“What that is saying is, ‘We know there are a lot of cooks in the soup on these application essays, and we want to make sure that the writing that you are able to produce on your own can keep up with that polished writing,'” said Jennifer Caran, national director for SAT and ACT programs for Kaplan. . . . Some argue that comparing the two essays is unfair. A student has far more time to polish an application essay than to burnish a 25-minute response. But educators make the case that basic writing and organizational skills should be consistent between the two samples. (Source)

Would basic skills translate from the traditional personal statement to the timed SAT essay? I’m thinking of moving the majority of my writing to in-class essays and I’d like to think that this is the case, but I can see reasons for allowing more time to put one’s thoughts on paper. Some students will do well with an essay that’s due in 2 weeks and do poorly on an essay due in 25 minutes; I just graded a student’s writing who earned a 75% on an out-of-class essay, yet earned a 60% on an in-class essay. That’s a profound difference in the grade and it was a profound difference in the level of thought demonstrated.

The Pragmatic

You mean there is a database of SAT essays on the College Board Web site? If these essays are easily available for college admission boards, to whom else could the content be made available?

To have a database of student writing on specific prompts is a huge endeavor. Are essays typed in? Are they scanned in? If I’m on the college board of admissions, what’s the process like to get a particular student’s essay? Can I get it immediately from the College Board Web site? As a high school teacher, could I have the same access? Could this be a way for high school teachers to evaluate student writing?

As I am grading my students’ writing this year according to the SAT rubric, I find that they are getting much higher grades than I had previously given essays. This is not because the rubric is any easier, but because the sample essays the College Board provides are essays that I am not terribly impressed with, either. Looking at passing essays for the high school exit exam lead me to the same conclusion. I am not saying that I grade much tougher than either of these two prestigious exams, but maybe I’ve been looking for the wrong things all these years. Samples of student writing on a single prompt, collected across the nation, could provide an interesting picture of student writing.

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