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Is the SAT/ACT Essay Still Needed?

In 2005, the College Board debuted the “new” SAT, which included a new and mandatory essay. The impetus for the change was both a desire to prioritize the importance of good writing but also in response to pressure from the University of California. The large UC system, enrolling over 200,000 students, said that fewer freshmen were prepared for the rigors of college writing, and threatened to drop the SAT altogether unless a writing section was added. Not to be left behind, the ACT also added an optional writing section in 2005.

No one disputes the importance of writing, but nearly 15 years later, are these writing assessments relevant? Do they provide admissions committees helpful information to assess a student’s writing ability?


Let’s start with a look at the current admissions requirements of schools atop US News and World Report’s top national universities and liberal arts colleges to see what they say about this assessment:

National University

Essay Liberal Arts College



not required Air Force Academy

not specified

Cal Tech

not required Amherst recommended

Carnegie Mellon

not required Barnard

not required

Columbia not required Bates

not required


not required Bowdoin

not required


not required Bryn Mawr

not required


optional Carleton

not required


not required Claremont McKenna

not required


not required Colby optional


not required Colgate

not required

Johns Hopkins

not required Davidson

not required


not required Grinnell

not required


not required Hamilton

not required


not required Harvey Mudd

not required

Notre Dame

not required Haverford

not required


not required Middlebury

not required


optional Naval Academy

not specified


not required Pomona

not required


not required Smith

not required

U Chicago

not required Soka University


U Penn

not required Swarthmore

not required

UC Berkeley

required U Richmond

not required


required Vassar

not required


not required Washington and Lee

not required


not required Wellesley

not required


not required Wesleyan

not required

Wash U

not required West Point



not required Williams

not required

NOTE: This list is subject to change. Be sure to confirm with each school prior to applying.

Only two top national universities – UC Berkeley and UCLA (as well as the rest of the UC system) clearly state on their websites that the essay portion of these exams is required.  Of the top national colleges, only two require it—Soka University of America, and West Point—and one (Amherst) recommends it.


Does this mean that admissions committees no longer value writing? Absolutely not. They will review grades in rigorous and honors level English courses, your essays and supplements, other standardized testing (especially AP Language and Composition and AP Literature and Composition), recommendations, and increasingly, graded English or history papers.  Yes, many schools, Princeton for example, are finding that the graded papers required by all applicants are helpful in evaluating for admissions.

So, don’t stress out about the essay portion of your SAT or ACT, unless you are targeting any of the schools mentioned above, but do focus on improving your writing abilities through rigorous coursework and reading great literature (fiction, non-fiction, classic, and contemporary) and challenging periodicals. Beyond just getting into college, improving your writing skills will be key to your lifelong success.

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Need Help With College Admissions?

College admissions is not for the faint of heart. All you need do is review the Class of 2021 acceptance rates to see for yourself.

We’ve been swamped with emails and calls from nervous parents and students who, now that summer has kicked in, wonder “WHAT can I do to get into a top college?” They ask varied questions, but are all seeking help. We feel their pain. It’s complicated and confusing to figure out what’s truth and what’s myth when it comes to getting into college.

As we always say, “college admissions is not transparent.” This is why we do what we do – we believe that knowledge is power and we set out to empower students with our books, services, and our Admissions Insight blog which has been around for over 15 years, before we even knew what a “blog” was.

college admissions focus
A clearer focus on college admissions.

Once some of the common myths are banished and students understand the playing field, the admissions process becomes much less stressful we’ve found. We want students to be fully authentic and when they stop trying to be someone they aren’t, in the name of “getting in,” then their time in high school is much better spent.

Below, we aim to give students and their parents a guide to what we offer that matches where they are! The questions are samples that have come to our offices recently.


Year by Year: There is a Lot You Can Do! Take Action Now.

I have just finished junior year and am stressed about the whole application process and selecting schools. Help me.

I’m going to be a junior in the fall and need help with admissions.

What should I do this summer that would help me get into a better college?

My son is a smart kid and did well freshman year, but he doesn’t have any of the high level awards other kids at his school who have gone to the Ivies received.

How can I push up my SAT/ACT scores? I have time this summer, but I’ve heard that the big company SAT/ACT prep courses in a classroom aren’t customized enough and sort of waste time? Any ideas?

Whatever tutoring you choose, be sure it is one on one tutoring as this is most effective and allows you to zoom in on your specific test-weaknesses. Our tutors and diagnostic testing do just this!

Are you a current client of Top Tier Admissions interested in our tutoring services? Email us for your client-only discount code.


I keep hearing about the Academic Index. What is it and where does my student stand?

  • That’s easy! We have a link to this on our website –assess where your student stands in terms of college admissions rankings today. Michele Hernandez was the first to reveal this formula to the public in her book A is for Admission and we were the first to bring the AI calculator to the web over 15 years ago!


college admissions glitter

Calling all writers! Get your groove on this summer and submit some of your work for publication. We love Glimmer Train which welcomes the work of upcoming writers like you. There is a fee per story (see website for specifics) but there are also prizes for winning entries. Listed below are upcoming deadlines for submissions.

Short Story Award for New Writers (1st place – $2,500):

  • Welcome in January/February, May/June, and September/October.
  • Open only to writers who haven’t had any fiction appear (nor scheduled to appear) in a print publication with a circulation over 5,000. (Entries must not have appeared in print, but previous online publication is fine.)
  • Most entries run from 1,000 to 5,000 words, but any lengths up to 12,000 are welcome.

Very Short Fiction (1st place – $2,000):

  • Welcome in March/April and July/August.
  • We invite any length stories from 300 to 3,000 words.

Fiction Open (1st place – $3,000):

  • Welcome in March/April and July/August.
  • Open to all subjects​ ​and themes. Most entries run from 3,000 to 6,000 words, but we invite stories from 3,000 to 20,000 words.

Family Matters (1st place – $2,500):

  • Welcome in November/December.
  • Calling for stories about families of all configurations. Most entries run from 1,000 to 5,000 words, but any lengths up to 12,000 are welcome.

Standard Category ($700):

  • Welcome in May and November.
  • Open to all. $2 processing fee. Maximum word count: 12,000. Any shorter lengths are welcome.

Ace the ACT with our 30-Day Plan

By: Amy Dulan

“Trying to understand is like straining through muddy water. Have the patience to wait! Be still and allow the mud to settle.” -Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Sound familiar? Preparing for the ACT can sometimes feel like you’re slogging through mud, uncertain of what lies before you. Achieving clarity is a challenge that often seems insurmountable. But fear not! There is hope, and if you take the time to understand the test and what is expected of you, the mud will settle.

The goals of your ACT preparation should be to learn about the test, acquire the knowledge and skills that are being measured by the test, and learn about yourself and how you respond to the different aspects of the exam. Ideally, you will begin your ACT prep several months in advance of the test. If you’re short on time – say you only have 30 days or so to get ready – make the most of that time by using the following study guidelines.


Set a reasonable goal: If you haven’t already done so, take a Diagnostic Test to determine your current readiness and identify your strengths and weaknesses. You can download a full-length actual ACT test here:


Take the test under timed conditions in a quiet area free from distractions. This will give you the most accurate picture of where you stand. Once you’ve scored your Diagnostic Test, determine a reasonable goal. If you need a composite score of 32, for example, and your Diagnostic Test score is a 27, you might want to consider waiting for the next test date and treating the upcoming test as another practice opportunity. If, however, three out of the four multiple choice test scores are within a point or two of your goal, you can spend most of the next 30 days focusing on the section that is your weakest.


Take an honest look at your schedule: Once you’ve determined your goal score, take control of your schedule and build in sufficient time to do some ACT prep. Generally, you cannot cram for the ACT – you must do enough practice to develop the test-taking skills rewarded by the ACT. Since you only have 30 days, we recommend devoting two to four hours per week to ACT prep, depending on the number of points you need.

As you practice, make a realistic assessment of the best use of your time and energy so that you are concentrating on the areas that will yield the highest score that you can achieve in the amount of time that you have remaining until the exam. This will result in a feeling of confidence on test day and allow you to clearly see the path to ACT success.

After two weeks of prep you should take a “Midterm” practice ACT to check on your progress. If you’re not seeing the improvement you were hoping for, consider working with your tutor and taking the ACT again at a later date.

Prepare with appropriate material: You should use practice material available on the ACT website or get a copy of “The Official ACT Prep Guide” online or at your local bookstore. Plan on taking at least one practice test section every other day and reviewing the answer explanations provided. There are many prep books available, but in this short time frame, working on actual ACT practice exams is in your best interest. You will quickly get a feel for the test and know exactly what to expect on test day. Don’t skip the section review chapters in the Official Guide. You can gain some great insights into the test and develop a better understanding of content areas and question types.



Following are some specific test-taking strategies that should help you approach the ACT with confidence.


  • Focus on the underlined portion, looking for errors in grammar and punctuation.
  • Predict an answer based on what you know about basic grammar and punctuation, and then look for your prediction among the answer choices.
  • Be careful not to introduce further grammatical errors; carefully read the   answer choices.
  • Read the answer choices into the sentence in place of the underlined portion, and pick the one that most clearly expresses the intended idea.
  • Remember that the best answer will fit within the context of the sentence, paragraph, or essay.


  • Draw pictures as necessary to help you visualize the problem.
  • Use logic and problem solving if the math fails you.
  • Estimate or “ball park” answers when you can to be more efficient.
  • Let the answer choices guide you as you solve the problem. You may not have to work through an entire calculation to arrive at the correct answer.
  • Do not try to do math in your head! The test contains “traps” for those students who rush through a problem, forget a negative sign, etc.


  • Read the question first. Answer the line reference questions right away, and remember to read a little before and after the line or lines that are referenced.
  • Simplify the question, and focus on key words and phrases to help you locate the area of the passage in which to find the answer.
  • Skim the passage for the key words and phrases in the question.
  • Predict an answer to the question based on the details found in the passage. Then look for your predicted answer among the choices.
  • Use the process of elimination if you cannot predict an answer. You are looking for the best choice, so getting rid of answer choices that are definitely NOT supported by details in the passage will leave you with the best possible answer.


  • Prioritize the passages. Start with the passages that you find easiest.
  • Put the questions in your own words so that you understand what is being asked.
  • Focus on the data and look for trends and relationships. Pay attention to whether numbers always go up, always go down, etc.
  • Don’t be scared by complex, scientific vocabulary. You do not have to know much, if anything, about most of the topics being tested.
  • The best answer choices will ALWAYS be supported by the data, so trust the information that you are given.


  • Use your time wisely, but remember that the essay readers are expecting a “rough draft.”
  • Stay focused on the prompt by referring to it while writing. An essay written off topic will receive a score of 0.
  • Use details and specific examples to support your position on the prompt. Don’t just say what you think; tell the reader why you think what you think.

We are happy to help pinpoint your ACT weaknesses and help you drill down to master each section of the test. With our 5 hour tutoring program you will tap into our expertise with each session and follow our customized plan to achieve your optimal ACT scores.

ACT Insider Tips SAT Standardized Testing Subject Tests

Tips for Saturday’s SAT & Subject Tests

For those of you taking Subject Tests or the SAT on Saturday — good luck! Below are some tips to help you maximize test day and soar!

  1. Eat a healthy dinner the night before — carb loading is a fine idea.
  2. Drink plenty of water so you’re hydrated.
  3. Review your materials this week and one last time Friday night.
  4. Visualize yourself calmly poised over the test, making great progress.
  5. Between each section of the SAT and in-between Subject Tests, bring to mind something that makes you happy and take 3 deep breaths – thinking of that happy thing.  A study with grad school testing showed doing this, pushed up scores by 40%.
  6. Pack some healthy snacks, check out our favorites:
  7. Go to sleep EARLY Thursday and Friday nights.
  8. Be confident! Trust your prep and yourself.

You’ve Got This!

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If you need to boost your scores to put yourself in range of your targeted colleges a tutor is absolutely a great decision. Remember, college admissions officers look at the hard data FIRST – grades and rank, rigor of your course load and standardized test scores! Give admissions officers the reasons they need to read your application essays.

Prep For the Next Round of SAT/Subject Tests

If you missed the October 1st SAT/Subject Test date and are aiming for the November 5th test date (register by Oct. 7th!), start prepping now via practice tests under simulated conditions. Practice, practice, practice, REPEAT.

ACT With Writing

 This next test is fast-approaching (October 22nd) and the late registration deadline is even faster, September 30th which includes a late fee. Again, practice, practice, practice, REPEAT.

Note the below testing chart to see possible testing for you to the end of 2016. Fill in your plan!

ACT & SAT testing schedule 2016
Click for full-sized image

Take a deep breath and a focused honest look at what you need to do to get where you want to be. Be smart, plan your prep, seek the guidance and assistance you need, use the resources available to you and be absolutely ready to get your SCHOLAR on.

ACT Ivy Admissions SAT Standardized Testing

Columbia Drops SAT/ACT Writing and Subject Tests

Columbia University announced recently that it will no longer require the writing section of the SAT or ACT and it will not require Subject Tests from applicants. U Penn and Cornell are the only other Ivies that do not require the optional writing sections of the SAT or ACT but still “recommend” Subjects Tests. Note: Subject Test submission for Cornell is dependent on the school (within Cornell) that applicants are applying to. Brown is similar: Students who submit SAT scores to Brown are also required to submit two Subject Tests, but the writing section of the redesigned SAT is not required. For students submitting ACT scores to Brown, it is recommended they take the writing section though it is not required and likewise, Subject Tests are not required.

See our chart below for a visual representation of standardized testing requirements across the Ivy League.


Let’s be clear about the reasons behind Columbia’s change in testing policies. Though Columbia claims it’s in the name of a more “holistic” read by admissions officers, the real reason has to do with boosting underrepresented minority applications. Often, minority students are discouraged from applying to top colleges because of high test averages of accepted students. Columbia’s Class of 2019 middle 50% of admitted students scored between a 2160-2330 (out of 2400) on the SAT.

Clearly, getting rid of testing is the quickest way to attract more underrepresented minority applicants. Meaning, they will only report the higher scores.

When Temple University dropped the SAT requirement, African American student enrollment went up 22% in one year and Hispanic enrollment went up 26%. Likewise, when George Washington University became score-optional, they experienced a sharp increase in African American, Hispanic, and first generation applications. In fact, GW received 6,000 more applications in 2016 than in 2015.

Applicants who are not underrepresented minorities have to read between the lines. Just because a college does not REQUIRE SAT/ACTs or Subject Tests (only 13 or so colleges actually require 2 or more Subject Tests), the vast majority “highly recommend” Subject Tests and use them to help determine the value of a student’s GPA.

Translation: the more high Subject Test scores you submit, the better.

Note the following summary on standardized testing requirements in 2016-2017 in the Ivy League:


Even bearing in mind the above chart, we still recommend taking as many AP exams and Subject Tests as possible for competitive colleges, as even score-optional colleges use those scores, as the majority of accepted applicants submit them. Take practice exams now, ensure your scores are where they need to be, and start prepping for early fall testing. There is still time!