THIS POSTING HAS BEEN REVISED TO REFLECT FREQUENTLY-CHANGING SAT ESSAY POLICIES.
The optional SAT essay, requiring an additional 50 minutes of test takers' time, focus and energy, is swiftly becoming an artifact.
Like the vestigial human appendix, at one point in time this component of the standardized testing landscape had its purpose. Today, more often than not, the essay score is simply disregarded, serving no true function in evaluating applicants, so says the testing policy at the vast majority of colleges and universities. Still, every year we grapple with the wisdom of signing up for the optional essay.
Testing Requirements Run the Gamut
How should students approach the decision of whether or not to sit for the optional essay? General wisdom has long suggested that the smart and safe move would be to write the essay because without it colleges that do require this component will regard the main two-part SAT score, consisting of Evidence-Based Reading and Writing plus Math, to be incomplete.
So what are the policies that colleges hold around the essay? Schools such as Bates, NYU, Quinnipiac, Connecticut College, UConn neither require nor recommend the optional essay and will not consider its score at the time of application review. No longer does the College of Charleston or Occidental even recommend the essay, a relatively recent change. As of last year, Duke stopped requiring it. None of the Ivies require the essay. So who does?
Primarily, the University of California system institutions (ex. UCLA; UC San Diego; etc.) and Stanford still ask for the essay. A student applying to these schools will need to submit their essay score in order to complete their application.
Another possible rationale behind writing the essay is as a back-up in the event a student later decides to transfer colleges, and the destination college is one that requires the SAT essay score for admission -- including transfer admission. Without a complete score, the SAT two-part score may be regarded as insufficient.
International applicants whose language of instruction is not English may consider writing the essay to lend another perspective to their TOEFL or IELTS score.
In the present timeframe, if a student feels that they will likely have remaining mental focus to satisfactorily write the essay after completing the main SAT sections, then they might just pay the extra $15 fee and register for the essay. And after once completing the essay and if satisfied with the two-part score, the student may not need to write the essay again in future testing scenarios. In other words, when it comes to the essay more often than not it's "one and done."