According to Leon Kamin, professor of Psychology at Princeton University, for the majority of the 20th century, colleges used standardized entrance exams as part of their admissions requirements. In the beginning of the 21st century, many universities shifted away from these one-size-fits-all exams to more personal entrance essays. Using these entrance essays generates many pros and cons for both colleges and applicants alike.
As with any mode of admissions requirements, college entrance essays allow the university to establish standards for admissions. According to instructional historian James Berlin, since their introduction at Harvard in the 1800s, college entrance essays have been used by admissions committees to weed out those applicants who don’t fit the bill. For the university, this is an incredibly positive feature of these essays, as they allow individual institutions to control the quality of students that enter. For individual applicants, however, this can be a negative feature of these essays as otherwise qualified applicants could be rejected if they are not strong writers.
College entrance essays can be used by an individual university to group students according to writing ability. Because nearly every college and university in the United States require students to take a first year writing class, the sorting feature of entrance essays plays a key role in determining how students can be placed in different sections of first year writing classes. For university writing programs, this sorting mechanism works as a positive bureaucratic tool for filling out rosters of different writing classes. According to Berlin, however, sorting students according to their performance on a single essay can result in student misplacement, and consequently, ill-formed student rosters in writing classes.
Unlike multiple choice entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT, college entrance exams provide individual universities with an opportunity to tailor their requirements for their school. While some universities may seek specific essays related to questions about current events, other schools may seek exploratory essays related to questions about philosophy or history. Berlin maintains that this subjectivity allows universities to get as unique and personal as they want to. It also eliminates the quantifiable objectivity of a standardized exam. Essays, unlike exams, must be read individually and thoughtfully, and as such their subjectivity can extend beyond their topics to include the manner in which they are evaluated.
Time and Effort
While entrance exams can typically be graded using grading technologies such as Scantron, essays require an army of individual readers and evaluators within admissions departments. Additionally, because different universities can have different essay questions, a single applicant needs to spend significantly more time applying to different schools than he would if he took only one exam used by different schools. Kamin argues that the time and effort required to generate and later evaluate entrance essays can be overwhelming, but that ultimately this time and effort can lead to a more tailored and personal application, allowing both colleges and students to find the best fit.