Distrusting Scores as Accurate Measure of Ability, Some Colleges Disregard SAT Writing Section

Colleges like MIT, Georgetown and Smith ignore applicants’ SAT writing section scores, while other schools like Harvard, Tufts and Wellesley downplay the writing numbers, according to a Boston Globe report. Many colleges are wary of the subjective essay grading system and the 25-minute time limit, which they say encourages formulaic writing and does not adequately judge writing ability. The writing section was added to the SAT in March 2005, and the College Board has said that 56 percent of four-year colleges still do not look at the writing section for admissions. The SAT writing section is divided into multiple-choice questions and an essay. The essay score accounts for 30 percent of the writing section score. The essay is scored by two trained readers that each give a score between zero and six points. The readers’ scores are added together to determine the student’s final score from zero to 12. If an essay receives marks that differ by more than one point, a senior third reader decides the point value. Karen Kristof, Senior Associate Director of Admissions at Smith College, said, “In terms of writing, we don’t look at the writing sample itself. We do look at the overall score and essay score, [but] in a de-emphasized way.” She added that SAT scores in general are much less important than other items in an applicant’s folder. Nicholas Forcier, Assistant Director of Admisions at Binghamton University, said, “There is a concern that the test is scored fairly subjectively.” A professor at MIT recently conducted an experiment on how to receive high essay scores on the SAT, also according to the Boston Globe. He discovered that essay scores increased when the students wrote a longer piece and used large words. Essays written in cursive and those not written in the first person received slightly higher scores, according to The New York Times. The SAT essay is administered in a brief 25-minute session. Some colleges believe that the 25-minute time limit is not sufficient for students to develop a solid thesis and support their ideas. Instead, they say, students are simply fitting a response to the questions into a basic five-paragraph essay structure. Kristof said, “Looking at data from previous years, SAT scores are less indicative of students’ success [once they arrive on campus.]” Jacqueline Duca, the Senior Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said, “We don’t look at [the writing scores] because it is not a fair evaluation tool and because part of college is learning how to write effectively.” The most prevalent reason why some colleges disregard scores from the SAT writing section is because it is a new evaluation. Many colleges such as Saint Anslem College are waiting to gather research for the new SAT essay before they use the essay in the admissions process. These colleges will decide if a high score on the SAT writing section translates into success in college writing courses. Senior Associate Dean of Admissions at Carleton College Margaret Otten said, “[The writing section] is open to a lot of criticism because it is new and colleges don’t know exactly what the scores mean. At a certain point you have to trust that College Board knows what they are doing.” Speaking about the quality of writing needed for the SAT essay, Matt Cranney ’08 said, “The essay is not a good judgment of writing skills especially given the time constraint.” He continued, “Most colleges require essays anyways. These college essays ask the questions that the colleges want answered and the college essays aren’t confined to a scoring system but instead can be compared to the essays of other applicants.” However, Jake Bean ’08 does not see an issue with the SAT essay. He said, “The SAT essay does require some knowledge of writing skills such as organizing and structuring an essay. You have to know how to set up an essay if you want to score well.” Bean added that, “All the other sections of the SAT are just as subjective as the essay portion.” For the schools that do not exclude the SAT writing section, the colleges look at the scores in various ways. Some schools, like William and Mary, view the writing score as an SAT II. Other schools such as Emerson College say they simply place less weight on the writing section scores.