Should You Take the Optional SAT/ACT Written Exam?

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Standardized tests used for college admissions are always a bit daunting, even for the most eager students. College admissions officers use these test scores to help determine whether or not to accept students who apply to their schools, so it’s easy to see why students feel a great amount of pressure to perform well.

While preparing for the SAT or ACT is difficult on its own, students also need to decide whether or not they should also take the written exam section. For both of these major college entrance exams, the essay portion is optional.

When making this decision, it helps to look at the advantages and disadvantages of opting to complete the essay section. If you’re a student who is about to make that choice, here are a few things to consider:

How Do the SAT and ACT Written Exams Differ?

Whether you’re planning on taking the SAT or the ACT (or both), or your state mandates which exam you must take, you will need to decide to either opt in or out of the written portion of the test. When making your decision, it helps to have an idea of what the essay will involve.

For the ACT, the written exam is 40 minutes long, and it is scored separately from the rest of the exam. For the essay, you’ll be presented with a complex problem along with three varying perspectives on the topic. You’ll be asked to write your essay by addressing your own stance on the issue and how it relates to the other perspectives. Here are a few sample essays.

With the SAT essay, you’ll get 50 minutes to complete the written section, and the score is also separate from your score on the main exam. You’ll be asked to read a passage and illustrate how the author’s argument is effective in convincing readers of his/her stance. You’ll need to reference specific examples from the text. You can find example essays here.

When Should You Take the SAT/ACT Written Exam?

If you’re not required to complete the essay section, it may seem pointless to even have the option in the first place. The truth is that there are clear reasons why it may be in your best interest to take it, including:

Some Colleges Still Require a Written Score

There are still quite a few schools that require applicants to take the written exam. If you have a list of schools to which you’re interested in applying, you can call the admissions offices or check their websites to find out what their requirements are. Clearly, if one of the schools requires a written score, you’ll need to take the written exam.

Some Colleges Prefer a Written Score

There are also colleges that don’t officially require students to have taken the written exam, but they still recommend it. Again, talking to an admissions officer or looking on the website should help you discover what a school’s preference is. If the school does mention written scores are preferred, it’s in your best interest to take it, especially if it’s even mildly competitive to get accepted to that school.

You’re Not Sure What Schools You Want to Apply To

If you’re still on the fence about what schools you want to apply to, it’s beneficial to take the written test. This way, you’ll be in the clear in the event you end up applying to a college that requires an essay score. It’s important to note that neither the SAT or the ACT allow students to take the written exam separately from the main test. If you opted out of taking the written section but end up applying to a college that does require the essay section, you’d have to retake the entire exam.

Why Is it Sometimes Better to Opt Out of the Written Exam?

While it may seem like taking the written exam is a fail-safe option, there are a few reasons why it’s better to opt out, including:

You Know the Colleges You’re Interested in Don’t Require or Prefer a Written Score

If you’re already firm with the list of schools you’re applying to, then you probably don’t need to sign on for the written exam. The only reason you may want to is if you’re a strong writer and are confident you can get a high score. It may help you stand out to some colleges even though they don’t require it, though it wouldn’t be a big determining factor.

Writing Isn’t Your Strong Suit

Not everyone is a natural writer. If you struggle with writing or simply dislike it, then the thought of spending time on an essay portion that’s not required is probably the last thing you want to do.

If you’re not planning on attending a college that lists the written exam as a determining acceptance factor, you’re probably better off taking only the main SAT/ACT. That being said, if it’s a possibility that you could apply somewhere where the essay is necessary, there are ways to strengthen your writing.

By practicing with some of the sample prompts or taking an SAT/ACT test prep course, it’s definitely possible to improve your writing skills so that you can aim for a high score. Additionally, writing is a skill you’ll need throughout your college career, so no matter what you plan on doing with the essay section, finding resources to help you make progress with your written communication is in your best interest.

You Have a Short Attention Span

It can take quite a bit of time and energy preparing for the required SAT/ACT. If you have a short attention span as it is and feel that trying to prep for an optional section would take the focus away from the core test, it may be better if you put your efforts toward studying for the required exam.

Similarly, the SAT and ACT are quite long and involved themselves, and the lengthy tests can often make students feel mentally depleted. If you feel you’d be too drained to effectively put an extra 40-50 minutes toward responding to an essay prompt, it’s most likely in your favor to conserve your energy for the required areas instead.

Decide What’s Right For You

Hopefully this information helps you make an informed decision on whether or not to take the SAT or ACT writing exam. There are situations where doing so will be required, times when it’s in your best interest, and instances where it’s simply not advantageous at all. At the end of the day, evaluating your unique circumstance will allow you to make the right decision for yourself.

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Whether you need help preparing for the essay portion or the main test, CollegeDrive offers a variety of test prep services designed to help you succeed and meet your goals. We’ll work with you to discover your strengths and weaknesses, and we’ll come up with a strategy that’s tailored to build on your core areas of strengths and weaknesses. Whether you’re looking for a practice test, online tutoring, or SAT or ACT test prep classes, we have an option that will fit your unique needs. For more information, get in touch for a free consultation. We can’t wait to help you succeed!

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