Hundreds of universities, including several top schools, ignore or pay little heed to students' scores on the writing section of the SAT in admissions decisions, skeptical about how well the essay reflects writing skills.
Reservations about the validity of the essay portion of the writing exam frustrate students who spend hours and sometimes thousands of dollars preparing for it and raise questions about the test's future.
Criticism about the essay has been building for more than a year since an MIT professor's experiment indicated that students could get high scores simply by writing longer and throwing in big words.
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."
The College Board, which administers the test, said its surveys and checks of university websites show that 56 percent of the roughly 1,000 four-year colleges do not use the writing section for admissions, although the overwhelming majority of the nation's 61 most selective colleges use it in some fashion.
College Board officials said universities' shunning of the writing test is not necessarily an indictment of the test. They said colleges are awaiting results of research to see if students with higher scores on the SAT writing exam also are high performers in writing classes in college.
The two-part writing test includes multiple-choice grammar questions, but it is the essay that is drawing the sparks in admissions circles. Students read a quotation and a question asking them to write a persuasive essay and support their position with examples from their reading, studies, experience, or observations.
Many test-preparation centers boast that they can train students to get high scores by writing five simple paragraphs, including a main idea, three examples, and a conclusion. Such an approach, test critics say, reflects seventh-grade work more than that of a college-bound high school student.
Students preparing recently for the Oct. 6 SAT exam at a Princeton Review center in Newton said the colleges' varying policies about the writing section are exasperating.
"It's a real shame," said Eva Jacob, 16, a junior at Brookline High School. "I feel it's what I've prepared the most for."
But Matt Gornstein, 17, a senior at Newton North High School, said he agreed with critics who say that writing the essay is a simple exercise.
"There's almost a formula to it," Gornstein said. "They train you to write an essay almost exactly the way they tell you not to do in school."
The debate about the writing test follows decades of controversy about whether the SAT effectively and fairly measures the college readiness of students, particularly those who cannot afford coaching. The College Board added the writing section and revamped other parts of the SAT after threats by the president of the University of California in 2001 to dump the entire test in the system's admissions process unless it was improved and writing was added.
Beginning in spring 2005, the SAT was expanded from the traditional two sections of reading and math to three. The test time grew from three hours to three hours and 45 minutes, and the point total rose from 1,600 to 2,400, with each subject worth 800 points.
Laurence Bunin, the College Board's senior vice president, said preliminary studies suggest that "the writing test and the score that results is a highly reliable, highly valid test."
Others say the evidence is not convincing. The National Collegiate Athletic Association will not count writing test results as eligibility criteria for Division I and II athletes until it sees more conclusive research from the College Board and others that the test can predict student performance, an NCAA spokeswoman said.
Georgetown, one of the more vocal opponents of the test, advertises its decision to ignore the writing score on its website.
"There is not enough information in place to support the value of it," said Charles Deacon, Georgetown's director of undergraduate admissions. The College Board "also implemented a writing section that we thought was highly manipulative and coachable," Deacon said.
MIT excludes writing from the mix when it plots students' SAT test results on a chart to see how the average applicant did, said Stu Schmill, interim director of admissions. Although the test is a few years old, the first MIT freshmen to have taken it only just finished their first year at the college, Schmill noted. Like other colleges, MIT wants to compare students' SAT writing scores to their performance on other writing measures the university administers.
Schmill said he wants to see whether students' scores on the SAT exam can predict whether they will be good writers in college or whether they simply learned how to craft a particular essay in a rote manner.
A College Board study, published in January, said training not only significantly improved students' writing scores, but also their writing skills.
Les Perelman, director of MIT's writing program, disagrees. He became so frustrated by what he believed were formulaic essays that freshmen were turning in after the SAT essay was introduced that he conducted an experiment: He trained three high school students, who had taken the SAT once already, to insert some factual errors, use big words, and ignore logical thought on the SAT essay, and each received a near-perfect score.
"They've learned to write paragraph essays where they don't care whether the facts are correct," Perelman said. "We have to spend a year in freshman composition deprogramming them."
Bunin and other College Board officials contend that Perelman's findings are inconclusive, since he only worked with a few students. But they acknowledge that factual accuracy was not crucial in the scoring.
"What the essay portion is about is a student's ability to express himself in writing," Bunin said. "This is not a research paper."
Controversy about coaching permeates the admissions industry, said Kelly Walter, BU's executive director of admissions.
"With the SAT essay, they may be prompted, but at least you know it's in a proctored environment, and it's not an edited piece of writing," Walter said.
Linda Wertheimer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.