The Boston Globe reported last week many top American universities are ignoring the writing portion of the SAT exam when deciding whether or not to admit high school students into their programs of study.

The rationale behind dropping the writing exam as a measure of intelligence and duty to study appears to be a feeling the task is not deeply reflective enough of a student’s true potential:

Georgetown University, Smith College, and MIT are among the schools that ignore the writing score altogether, while Wellesley College, Tufts University, and Harvard take varying approaches, with none placing high importance on the score. Students get only 25 minutes to read the essay question and answer it, too little time to produce a valuable writing sample, said Deborah Shaver, Smith’s director of admissions. “This is not great writing,” Shaver said. “These aren’t higher-level learning measures.”

I find this trend unfortunate. The Boston Globe article continues to explain the writing portion of the SAT has become “formulaic” with a five paragraph essay consisting of an introduction, three paragraphs of support and a conclusion.

University admissions officials appear to argue the writing exam is either too hard or too easy for students to construct in the 25 minute writing window. I argue a 25 minute essay exam is a fine reflection of any student’s ability to write a logical and convincing essay.

A five paragraph essay is a terrific structure to test and stretch the talents of any writer. If you cannot make your point clear in 25 minutes, how can you expect to be convincing in the real world of immediate emails and other written virtual interactions like online text conferencing, real-time discussion areas, blogging and mega-media creations?

I know most students despise restrictions on their writing. They think everything flowing from their fingers is made of gold. Students want to write stream-of-consciousness pieces that adhere to zero form and structure — and therefore cannot be critiqued or require revision — and that sort of selfish writing is appreciated and understood only by them and their small circle of like-minded friends.

Writing is about the clear communication of ideas and dreams against a fuzzy and dark world. You must choose the right words to be succinct and cogent in a scholarly essay argument. It takes time, practice and dedication to write a precise essay and there is nothing wrong with testing that ability on the SAT — the problem is rubbed raw when universities refuse to consider the talent of the essay author in their admissions decision.

The mission of a university education must be to learn how to express your passion and magnitude in writing so others beyond you may understand your consciousness and appreciate your point-of-view — even if they do not agree with you — and for elite universities to drop the consideration of writing as a marker of excellence is disappointing in the supreme and embarrassing in the sublime.

26 Comments

  1. Hi Mario!
    Thanks for your comment and I am appalled and saddened with you. We are lowering the necessary standard of intelligence and communication every day in the USA and this new policy where “timed writing doesn’t matter” is further evidence of our total decline and fall.

  2. Fair exchange money for knowledge. Writing is too hard for these students so you devalue it in admissions and lower expectation in the classroom. Less research papers to check.

  3. Okay, I’m getting in on this, too. Writing is textual speaking and if students can’t be understood on the page then how they be understood presenting their mind to others in an open forum? How can they learn another language if they can’t master all of the written and spoken aspects of their home language? This policy is an invitation to the disaster of ignorance sponsored by the university.

  4. Hiya, Marie! Right on! The word in its modern base recorded form — the textual — is what survives The Ages and lives beyond the human and tasks the ethereal with everlasting life and confirmed wisdom. The true student will realize this and commit to the invention and propagation of creating and preserving the written word.

  5. Being able to establish a well written essay in twenty-five minutes…that’s hard. But, I think it is a wonderful goal for future students. The problem is that today’s students do not practice much timed writing in class. Literature teachers focus on essays that are done over days or even weeks. If the government is expecting its kids to be able to write good essays in twenty-five minutes and use them for college acceptance, then these timed essays need to be taught regularly in literature classes.

  6. Hi David,
    I guess the world will be full of “excellent quiz performer” one day as a result of this – people will know the answers of all the “whats”… but no”whys” and “hows”.
    Usually I try to see two sides of any argument but I can’t find any rationale of this.
    Writing and composition is considered as “fluff staff” to most students but I think it helps to get a clear idea about not only their writing skill but also of their comprehending ability.

  7. I taught high school English for four years. While I agree that the five paragraph essay rarely suffices in a “real life” college classroom, or even high school, it is a perfect way to judge a students ability to organize nand present information in a coherent and cohesive manner.
    Wow. I just sounded kinda smart there, yeah?

  8. Hi estheticutterance —
    Timed writing should be taught as a basic part of any English program and should be mandatory for all students. When students write they want to be creative and expressive. They always prefer the poem over the structured essay. We owe it to them to help them realize writing on a deadline is the way of life and a requirement of the business world if you’re writing a memo, an email to convince someone of your logic and clarity or an argument before the Supreme Court.

  9. Katha!
    You make excellent and insightful points as usual. You’re right that if you want to write effectively you must be able to read the work of others and that means that others who hope to influence your writing must be effective writers as well. Writing is a circle of education that too many students feel is a loop of contempt. Those students have been failed by their writing instructors.
    The timed essay challenges the author to think fast, to cogently argue within a tight frame of meaning and to make rational points based on facts to argue an important position. That means one must leave the self and look at the worldview of lives other than the one owned.

  10. Hi Vanessa!
    Right! Those brief essays are an art form and actually serve as an excellent template for the “convincing business memo” that most students will end up writing for pay in a job they rarely realize is close on their horizon.
    I used to teach at a college where all Freshmen were required to pass a timed essay exam before moving on to regular English classes. Lots of students failed and the professors graded the essays quite harshly. All of the students were terrified of the exam. We spent a lot of time in class making the essay easy to master via formulaic thinking. All good arguments share a same basic structure and there is nothing wrong is using that rigid frame to create your own argument and insight. The key to writing well is writing every day and revising all day.

  11. Hi David,
    Yes, writing in a precise manner is a skill which needs to be acquired by practice like any other subject – it can’t be mastered naturally – by the mass.
    Everyone is not a gifted writer and math and science skill doesn’t guarantee it.
    Understanding others’ point of view and briefly expressing it needs practice.

  12. Katha!
    Yes! That’s it! Being skilled in science does not mean one is able to express the merits of the findings in writing.
    As you know this method of teaching is collectively called “Writing Across the Curriculum” and it is important that students learn the value of stretching their talent over fields they may never plow but must be prepared to master.
    One of my English students told me she used our essay method in a History class examination and got an “A” for the first time in her life in that subject. She was shocked! I was pleased to see that discovery in her but I was a little concerned it took her to learn that important cross-referencing tool in her Junior year at a major university.

  13. Hi David,
    Cross referencing is a very important aspect to master, so is the ability to understand the significance of it.
    I know a PhD in Soil Biology whose writing skill could make one cry. In fact, he took a couple of years more to finish his doctorate because of this, his advisor made him rewrite his dissertation more than 5/6 times.

  14. Right, Katha!
    I know there are PhD programs that are harder on native English speakers than they are on “foreign” students who have not mastered basic English grammar — and that has always struck me as inherently unfair because the non-native speakers have such poor writing and communication skills that no one can understand their essays or memos or emails! Yet they are pushed through the program to keep the university minority matriculation numbers “up” to entice more funding and foreign applications — so I am glad to hear there are some PhD programs out there that are trying for a universal compatibility in awarding dissertations based on a minimum language proficiency.

  15. Right, Katha! It is fascinating that some of our greatest writers — Plato, Aristotle, Einstein, Hawking, Sagan, Foucault, and Crichton — did not “make their bones” on the page first as writers. They made their famous thoughts and history-making ideas in their separate fields first and then gained international acclaim by expressing those terms on the page for mass consumption beyond their limited intellectual cadre.