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How Coronavirus is changing the importance of the SAT and ACT in college admissions.

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Every day, a new development seems to squeeze testing out of the college admissions process.

All SAT exams are postponed to the fall, when the test will likely be taken at home online. The ACT, which still has one June exam in the calendar, will likely do the same. Last week, the University of California announced that it's extending its test-optional status indefinitely, and going test-blind by 2024 for in-state residents. This change adds to a surge in test-optional schools for the duration of the pandemic: Amherst, Dartmouth, Cornell, Villanova, Colgate, Boston University, Tufts, Tulane, Williams and about 150 other US schools, growing the total number to around 1200. Never has the test-optional trend spiked this high (most quarters about 10-20 schools go test-optional). Is the age of the SAT and ACT over? And what does this mean for your admissions prospects?

The rise of the whole-person application

The use of high-stakes testing as a standard to measure a student’s college readiness has been on the decline for at least two decades (due mostly to the fact that it is more a marker of a student’s privilege than academic prowess – families that can hire tutors consistently score higher than their peers who have the same grades but cannot afford tutoring). COVID’s disruption of high school education only broke the dam of this building momentum of inequality. 

 

In speaking with college admissions offices over the past month, it’s clear that the desire for a more wholistic admissions rubric is increasing. Before, the more competitive schools tended to treat metrics like test scores and GPAs more like a password into an application than a core part of the application itself.  In other words, they opened applications that met certain numeric benchmarks (and didn’t consider the applications that did not), but they didn’t consider those metrics much after that point. It was a way to divide student applications into several piles, as a first step. A student’s courses (in and out of high school), application statements, résumé elements, and teacher recommendations are poured over to get a picture of the whole person.  Are they passionate about learning? Are they authentic? Are they academically autonomous and capable? 

 

Today, more and more schools are loosening up that “password” phase of the process and, therefore, increasing the number of applications they are opening. Last week, Jim Nondorf, the dean of admissions at the prestigious yet “test-optional” University of Chicago, told Sal Khan (of Khan Academy) that SAT or ACT scores are an even lower priority. “If you can get scores this year, great; we’ll look at them,” he said, “but we don’t need them.” He offered that a student applying to major in art history doesn’t need to impress him with high SAT math scores to get in. Additionally, a student that simply doesn’t translate their math knowledge into high test results could show their mastery by sending screen grabs of their progress on the Khan Academy website. This is the first time we’ve heard an admissions dean say anything close to that! Nondorf made clear that he is much more focused on students’ drive and ability to learn, qualities that come through in transcripts, personal statements and recommendations more than through numbers. 

 

While most schools are relaxing requirements in different ways (visit their websites to learn more), they are all focused more on the qualitative side of applicants.

So, should you skip the SAT or ACT then?

In short, no. The SAT and ACT are still an important way to stay competitive and help get your application past that “password” phase. While colleges are eager to find ways to assess a student in a more qualitative way, they aren’t quite there yet. These tests will be around as long as colleges are interested in the “option” of seeing your score. After all, “test optional” usually means that most student do submit a test. Case in point: over 80% of students admitted to University of Chicago last year submitted test scores – the vast majority in the 99th percentile (receiving over 1500 SAT and 35 ACT). You have to take the SAT and ACT to stay competitive.

 

The longer answer is that a test score is now more like a piece of a mosaic than the keystone of an arch. Give it a serious, consistent effort, but don’t treat it with more importance than Dean Nondorf at U of C does. On the flip of the above example, 10-20% of U of C students are there without test scores – and that number will only increase, but not just at U of C. We will see a surge in highly qualified no test students admitted at hundreds of major universities this coming year. 

What else should I focus on?

Discover what you love to nerd out about: could Youtube dive for hours to learn more about; could get up at 4am to study, create, or experience. Then translate that into your life. Study it in summer pre-college programs; intern virtually in a company or organization that is all about it; start or join an (online or socially distant) club devoted to it; partner with a teacher at school to make a special research project for it (get them to write your recommendation), write applications that sing about it. Schools are falling over themselves to let in students like this. Be one of them.

Want more of the inside scoop on Covid and college admissions?

Fellow admissions coach Michelle Siddons and I are giving a webinar on this topic on Tuesday May 26th at 8pm. Sign up here to see it live, ask us any question you like, or get the recording.

 

We also offer group courses and 1-on-1 coaching for all aspects of the admissions journey – from résumé building, to statement drafting, and to, yes, testing. 

Meet Justin


Armed with a Masters in dramatic literature from the Sorbonne (Paris) and an MFA in playwriting from Yale, Justin has helped hundreds of students boost their scores as a test prep tutor (SAT/ACT, SAT/AP French) and boost their admissions prospects as a college application consultant and college essay coach for over 10 years. He has taught writing at Yale University, Wesleyan University, the Sorbonne, in high schools and privately throughout New York City with all ages. He is also a professional meditation teacher and loves sharing meditation hacks to cruise through stress on test day (ask him about being the meditation teacher for Facebook).

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