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Household Income, SAT Scores & Essay Content

The relationship between SAT and ACT scores to household income is well-documented. Even the most ardent supporters of standardized tests cannot dispute the fact that higher scores are tied to higher family income brackets.

Which is a big reason why the test-optional movement was gaining steam even before the pandemic.

So without test scores, essays are gaining greater importance in the process of college admission. It's a logical result: in absence of test scores, college admission counselors are weighing college application essays heavier.

But what if essay content is also related to household income? What if a student's word choice, punctuation and structures were also connected to household income?

Turns out, there is indeed a strong relation. Essays, like test scores, are related to household income.

In a new paper from Stanford CEPA (Center for Educational Policy Analysis), researchers concluded that "essay content is strongly related to household income and SAT scores." By reviewing 60,000 undergraduate applications and 240,000 essays, Salinas native AJ Alvero and his team at Stanford revealed that "essays have a stronger correlation to reported household income than SAT scores."

This is big news. The Wall Street Journal just issued an Opinion piece about the same.

But what does it mean?

On one hand, this shouldn't be much of a surprise. Elite and selective institutions have likely flagged essays with targeted vocabulary or niche topics for generations. If the crew team needs a coxswain, then any essays about coxswain experience would likely receive special attention.

On the other hand, we should be outraged. Here is hard evidence of yet more inequities in our higher education system. Access to elite and selective colleges is only for those in higher income brackets who can pay to prepare for the SAT/ACT or craft perfect essays?

Sure, I get it. Enrollment management is a business decision. In order for colleges to keep their doors open, they need to cater to some full pay students.

But if we truly believe that higher education is a means towards upward mobility, we may need to reconsider why household income is so closely related to test scores and essay content. What do we value when we assess student potential? What should we value?

As colleges grapple with these questions, CROSSWALK is here to support all students, regardless of income. Financial aid, and pro-bono programs, are available for all tutoring, especially test prep.

Share this with someone you know that could benefit from academic support no matter what adjusted gross income they have. Let's be sure all students have a path to college.

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