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Over the years, the SAT and ACT have both been redesigned. Once upon a time, the SAT essay was required. Now, it’s not. At one point, the ACT essay was scored out of 12. As of last year, it is out of 36. These adjustments reflect attempts to make the optional essay a more useful recruiting tool that can predict how well a student will do in freshman composition classes.

However, many colleges remain unconvinced of the added value of the optional essay or writing section. While some places require that you take it, others simply do not look at these scores. Here is a guide for deciding if the optional essay is right for you:

You should write the optional essay if…
  • Your school requires it.

The first question you should ask yourself is whether or not your preferred colleges require the optional essay. If they do, then there is no use reading this blog post. Sign up for the ACT with writing or the SAT with essay.

  • You will get a really good score.

Next, ask yourself if you will do well on this section. Even if a school doesn’t require it, a great score is always a good thing to send to colleges. If you had a wonderful English teacher and have time to prepare, then it’s probably wise to go ahead and plan to complete the optional essay.

You should avoid the optional essay if:
  • You cannot stick to a 5-paragraph format.

It can difficult to judge a person’s writing abilities objectively. Both the ACT and SAT use rubrics that base scoring on things like essay organization, logical idea development, and clear sentence structures. If your writing style doesn’t fit the 5-paragraph and clear thesis statement mold, it might be best to save your poetry for your personal statement.

  • You don’t have time to prepare.

Even good writers need to run through a couple of practice essays to get the hang of the style and format that these standardized tests ask for on the optional essay.

If you’re going to spend a lot of time preparing for other sections of the ACT or SAT, then you might not have a lot of time to work on your writing. That’s okay. Do what you need to do to maximize your score.

  • You cannot afford it.

The optional essay always incurs an extra fee ($16 more for the ACT with writing and $12 more for the SAT with essay). Since many good schools don’t require the essay, don’t make your parents go bankrupt over this. Of course, both SAT fee waivers and ACT fee waivers exist to cover both the test and the essay for qualifying students.


Maija Wallace is a freelance writer for college admissions blogs. Her website is located at

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