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SAT & ACT: What happened to the Essay section and Subject Tests?

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

In last week's webinar, I interviewed our founder, Josefine, in order to get the answers to all the most pressing questions on the minds of standardized-testing-aged students: "What's going on with the SAT essay? Why was my subject test canceled? What score will get me into my dream school?" In just over an hour, we covered a multitude of topics - scroll down to watch the live recording of our webinar, or keep reading to get the highlights and helpful hints.

Your SAT & ACT questions, answered

Table of Contents

Question 1: What happened to the SAT essay section? Question 2: Should I sign up for the ACT essay? Question 3: Why shouldn't someone sign up for the ACT essay section? Question 4: What about SAT Subject tests? Question 5: Are there any more changes? Question 6: Since subject tests are kaput, should I be taking more APs instead? Question 7: What is test-optional? Question 8: How does test-optional change the industry of college applications? Question 9: What should be the strongest part of someone's college application without test scores? Question 10: Should I take the SAT or ACT? Question 11: What's a good SAT or ACT score? Question 12: When should I retake my tests to improve my score? Question 13: What is superscoring? Question 14: Even if a college doesn't superscore, should I send the colleges all my test scores? Question 15: What are some good techniques for bubbling that improve performance?

Question #1: What's happened to the SAT essay?

Basically, the College Board discontinued the essay section of the SAT, leaving reading, writing and language, and the two math sections. The essay section was optional. There are a couple different reasons for the change. First off, College Board wanted to adapt to changes in the college admissions process, and not just because of COVID. In short, they wanted to reduce the demand on students, and simplify the process for them. The essay will be unavailable after the June 2021 SAT, and anyone who is taking the test with essay before then has the option to cancel.

Back to why they cut the essay: it seems counterintuitive initially, since college students need to demonstrate good writing skills. The essay section actually used to be mandatory, and then became optional, for the same reason it's now being removed entirely. There are other, more predictive ways of demonstrating college-level writing essays. Colleges can see three years of high school English grades, which is more than enough to give colleges a glimpse into your skills. On top of that, you have the writing and language section of the test, as well as your entrance essays themselves.

Some schools recognized this overkill ahead of time - like the Ivies that made the essay optional in their application. Different schools having different requirements, and different language to describe those requirements, was found to be very confusing for students - take me! When I took the essay portion and got an 11, I was thrilled, until I found out that unlike other sections of the test, the essay section couldn't be superscored (attached to a different composite score). I was stuck with an excellent essay score on a less-than-excellent test score, even though I continued to improve my composite score on future test dates. Luckily for SAT students, that's not a concern anymore.

Question #2: Then should I sign up for the ACT with writing?

Because colleges that accept SAT and ACT scores see these tests as equivalent, the ACT Essay section became useless as soon as the SAT got rid of its optional essay section. We aren't aware of any colleges at the moment that require students to complete the essay section of the ACT.

Question #3: Is there any benefit to signing up for the ACT Essay section?

Typically the only benefit of utilizing the ACT essay is if you want to showcase amazing and outstanding writing skills. However, in our experience, terrific writers still have trouble with the format of the ACT essay, thus making this section more trouble than it's worth (usually). Our recommendation: skip it and use that extra energy to conquer the test itself.

Question #4: Okay, so what about the SAT subject tests?

The subject tests are over - starting now. Any students signed up for a test can go online and get a refund, since the College Board will no longer offer these at all.

The subject tests are very specialized - in Spanish, physics, math, etc. What College Board found is that the content overlapped significantly with the AP tests, which the College Board also administers! They decided that the AP test are more widely adapted and available, plus more effective. They are accessible to students from more diverse economic backgrounds, since they're administered in school, and so they create more educational equity. Cutting the subject tests makes the college application process much easier - you can take the AP test or not, but it's up to you, and it's available whenever you need it.

Question #5: That's not all, right?

Right. Because of the complications around scheduling test in 2020, with so many seniors clamoring for space and juniors being left without available seats, College Board wants to make testing more unified and accessible to all. They're making registrations more readily available to combat the COVID slump, and are considering expanding capacity for the number of tests offered. On top of that, the SAT is developing a dynamic test that will adjust to your skill level (like they offer for the GRE). Plus that SAT test will be a lot shorter than the ACT's 3-ish hour-long test.

Question #6: Since the subject tests are kaput, should students take the APs instead?

Subject tests were only ever taken to assist students in getting into highly specialized programs, like engineering. Hardly anyone took them at all, but there was a specific reason to. So, why does a student take an AP class? If you're taking a class because you have a deep interest in that subject, go ahead! If you're taking APUSH because everyone else is, it may not be the best choice. Pushing yourself academically is great, but it's not the only way to show your passion and individuality on a college application. Consider the value of your time - would the amount of study hours you would spend preparing for a test you're not that excited about be worth more than an internship, a travel opportunity, or a personal project? APs are not the norm - they're advanced. Hands-on learners may want to shift their focus to a project in their area of curiosity, instead of trying to check boxes they believe will look good on a college application. Start a path of reflection, and self-exploration, instead of overloading yourself and succumbing to burnout.

On the technical side, you also want to avoid getting a low grade in an AP class. If you think you can get an A or B in an AP class, go for it! Even though it may become a B once it's weighted, a C or lower can severely slash your unweighted GPA, which is often one of the first metrics through which a college judges applicants.

Question #7: What is test-optional, what is test blind, and what do those policies mean for students applying to college?

Many school have gone test=optional for 2021/22 in order to provide current seniors with heightened accessibility. Current juniors will have to stay tuned for more updates. For more information on what test-optionCheck out our blog post on test optional, here!

Question #8: This year has been strange. What kind of precedent has been set, long term, for the involvement of standardized testing in college applications?

I don't have a crystal ball, but I'm optimistic. I think more universities will decide to stay test optional once they find that their student statistics increase in socio-economic diversity and don't decrease in college preparedness. Check out to get more info on test-optional schools and the time frame for which a school is implementing that policy. However, as an unforeseen consequence of many colleges going test-optional, college selectivity (that is, how selective colleges are) has shot through the roof these past few years. Students are being rejected left and right from colleges that would have been a shoe-in circa 2019. And because of this drop in admission rates, students are overall applying to more colleges because of it.

Question #9: Without a test score, what should someone's top priority be in their college application? What should be the strongest part?

What colleges want to see is that you have curiosity and passion, an intrinsic motivation to dig deeper. Your application should, simply, make sense. One of the things I recommend is to avoid doing everything - don't feel like you have to put 20 things on your resume! Pick a handful of things that you're passionate about and really focus on longevity and depth of involvement. Growing into a leadership role is also very valuable. These things can be contextualized in your essays and on your resume/activities list. If your school offers programs that align with your passions, get involved there as well. Find balance in your life, and challenge yourself to be best at what you do. Check out our post about building a dynamic activities list here!

Question #10: Should I take the SAT or the ACT?

Don't take both. Ugh. Not that you can't - it just adds more stress than you need. Take a diagnostic test of both, in order to determine which one you hate less! That way you can compare your score on both. In addition, this can help you determine areas of strength and weakness - you might discover that you can do that SAT reading and writing section with time leftover, but struggle to finish the ACT reading section in time. There are some janky online quizzes out there, so make sure you take full-length tests in a test-like atmosphere (3 hour stretch, 5 minute breaks, etc.). We also offer a complimentary evaluation after your two diagnostic tests, instead of just tossing your score report at you and sending you on your way.

There are some hints as to who might excel at a certain test before taking one: someone who needs more time for a test could find the SAT easier, as it has more time per question. Same goes for a math whiz - half of your score comes from the math section. The ACT is only 25% math, however. A student who is not as strong mathematically might choose the ACT. ACT is a lot of reading! A student who can't read and digest information quickly might lean towards the SAT. For more insight into which test may be a fit for you, check out our blog post on Should you take the SAT or ACT?

It's all about finding out which test fits you, not trying to cram you into the box of a test that isn't going to help you play to your strengths. To

Question #11: Let's get real - what's a good test score?

There is no good score. But what you may be referring to is how you score compared to everyone else who takes the test. In Orange County, some people might not look favorably on a 25 on the ACT - but a 25 is WAY above the national average. It's all about context and motivation. Why are you taking the ACT? Most people take it to contribute to their college applications. So, what really matters is how a college will view your score. Begin some research on the college admissions stats for the schools you're interested in - what you'll see is a score range assigned to the middle 50% of students at that university. Your SAT/ACT score won't make or break your application, but a score in the middle 50% will definitely strengthen your application. If you're in a lower bracket, like the bottom 25%, it's a bit less favorable - but perhaps that school is test optional! You might want to refrain from sending your score if you place in the lowest percentile of their current student body.

In addition, consider your application as a whole. If you have a low SAT score but an amazing GPA, applying to some test optional or test blind schools is a great choice, since they won't be slowed down by your score. However, if your test score is "good" (percentile-wise) and your GPA isn't sparkling, sending your score can improve your overall appearance and balance out the negativity of your GPA. A "good score" is all about context.

I'm all about high goals, but I'm also about celebrating wins. Comparing yourself to your friend because they scored higher than you is a dangerous game - focus on the incredible effort and hard work that you've put in to get yourself where you are. Yes, there's always room to improve, but no good comes of assigning too much emotional value to a little number on a piece of paper.

Question #12: I want to improve my score - when should I retest?

Don't test a month after your first test! You need more time than that to receive results, process them, and build a plan to improve. Give yourself about two months, initially - if you took the test in March, maybe take it again in June or May. There aren't a lot of rules here, so you can take it as often as you want, but I recommend a minimum of two times. The second time there's more familiarity with your surroundings, and less overwhelm associated with "Ahhhh new place! New test! New room!"

There's something to be said for how much you connect to the specific sections you're given, as well. I, for one, am a lot happier if the ACT science section includes more biology than physics. That stuff is random, so you want to make sure you do your best to take a variety of sections, which means taking the test a few times.

Taking the test a few times is expensive, and if you cannot meet that expense, you can apply for a fee waiver. I recommend this, as it helps pave the way for other comped expenses in the college application process. If you can demonstrate that you received an SAT or ACT fee waiver, other institutions will sometimes reduce or cover costs for other related expenses.

Question #13: What is superscoring?

Superscoring is great. Basically, some schools allow you to mix and match your scores across sections in order to show a higher composite score. Say you take the ACT twice, and you get a 26 composite score both times, but your sections aren't consistent - you got high math and English scores on one, and high science and reading scores on the other. Schools that permit superscoring will let you take the highest section score from either test and combine them to create your new composite score, a 28! You never achieved a 28 in one sitting, but you now have one on paper. You submit both tests, and they calculate it for you. This is less common for the ACT, so look into your specific schools and call admissions officials to ask about their superscoring policy.

Question #14: Even if they don't superscore, should I send a college all of my test scores?

It's different for every school. Most universities only accept one score, but some schools (usually very selective ones) say they'd like all of your test scores over every date. Showing an upward trend in those scores is positive, even though they say they'll consider only your highest. Again, look into the specific requirements of the schools you're applying to.

Question #15: What are good techniques for timing, bubbling, etc. that improve performance?

Yes, absolutely. Timing is an important one, and understanding how much time you have. I like to have student write down their start time and end time as they test, so that they're always conscious of it. Track whether or not you're at the halfway point when you have half of the time left. When you're doing a practice test, it's important to mimic the testing environment as closely as possible. Take it in the morning, under bright light, with no distractions, no checking your phone, etc. The goal is to get as close to the real testing conditions as you can. That way you really get a sense of your abilities and your timing.

Don't beat yourself up about mistakes! Practice, practice, practice. Set achievable goals, like shaving off a minute from your reading section completion time, and then do that over and over again until you're where you want to be.

Question #16: What's your final advice?

Take a diagnostic test. Go to the evaluation session. Get educated on yourself, your abilities, and how much work you have to put in to improve.

In the end, we're here to make this process more manageable for you - and everyone's on your side, even when it seems overwhelming. Reach out to admissions representatives, your counselor, your parents - never feel as though you have to do this all on your own! You are awesome, and beyond capable of doing everything you want to do, joyfully.


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