The SAT Writing Test

Back in November ( I posted an overview of how (and why) colleges use the SAT and ACT tests in evaluating applicants. Since then a few more questions have come up about the SAT writing test.

First, I should note that I am not in any way convinced that the CollegeBoard, the folks who bring you the SAT, AP, etc, are anything but well intentioned. My university is a member, as are most institutions, and I’m an institutional representative to the Board. As I wrote in November, I’m not rabidly anti-test – I think they can be useful when used appropriately.

It appears the SAT changed to meet demands of the marketplace, especially the CollegeBoard’s biggest customer, the California University system. There was a very public threat that they would stop using the SAT, then a clarification that they felt the SAT II writing test was a better predictor of college success and they would start using that instead. Almost immediately after, the CollegeBoard announced their plans to “save writing” in the schools by incorporating a writing test into the general SAT. This mollified the California schools, and bascially the Board just took a long standing exam, the SAT II, and incorporated it with parts of the old Verbal section and, Ta Da, New SAT – longer, more expensive, and ready for use.

In general, the schools that used the SAT II in their admissions process are using the writing score from the New SAT. Most schools have it loaded into their systems since it just comes with the same data and would be harder to drop out than to leave, so many admissions officers will see your writing score, even at schools that aren’t using that section of the test. So far, the rankings companies, especially US News, haven’t included the writing score in their formulas, so most colleges still have a wait and see attitude.

I’m really not opposed to the writing test, again if used in context. I was really put out by the campaign the CollegeBoard used to launch the test, which claimed the test would, as I said, “Save Writing” and get it back into the curriculum. Mason is one of a handful of schools to be highly ranked for our Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) program. The theory goes that in graduate school and in the workplace, even though you have deadlines, you aren’t usually given timed writing assignments. You also aren’t usually asked to write about random questions, but instead about specific topics related to your studies or work. WAC programs require researched, reflective writing across your primary courses. So when I teach my Communications 100 class, my students have to write a research paper on a topic of interest to them on which they will also do a speech, and the same goes for our other general education courses. That’s the kind of writing that will help you succeed. I’ll admit, students who do well on reflective, edited, researched writing may also do well on timed writing, but not necessarily. What seems obvious is that the best way to get a good grade on the writing section is to learn to write REALLY FAST, following all the required grammatical and stylistic guidelines. Unfortunately, that doesn’t require that your content be good, or even true. There may be some correlation between the writing test and college grades, as writing fast is likely of use in some classes, but on the whole it’s not the kind of writing we want to encourage, and I sure don’t think the test saved writing!

As a result, most schools aren’t using the test in the admission process. Many are collecting it to “test the use” of the scores in the future (you can also read that as “being prepared” in case US News starts using those scores!).

What does it mean to you? As with many things, check with the schools where you are applying. If they really aren’t using those scores (Mason really isn’t) then you might just relax a bit on that section of the test…although you might also check to see if they are using the scores in any other ways (like placement into English classes), just in case.

There have been dozens of articles on the test, and I’ll look for some of the links, but feel free to send additional questions in the meantime. Be seeing you.


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