The college admissions landscape is rapidly changing. Yes, by the time current rising juniors apply to college, it likely that the threat of the pandemic will have faded and we will have returned to some semblance of previously normal life. But, many colleges and universities have adopted test-optional (TO) policies that span beyond the coming year or are permanent. The University of California (UC) system even announced that their admissions process will be test-blind for two years for in-state students, following two years of TO. So, what are current rising juniors to make of SAT and ACT preparation? Is TO a viable path to admission – or even a preferred option – for upcoming classes of students?
The short answer is that while TO is more viable than ever, we still recommend that most students plan to test early and more than once – the same recommendation we made last year. If your test scores stand any chance of being a positive data point on your application, you should plan to submit them.
These upcoming years are uncertain years when it comes to the competitiveness of college admissions. On the one hand, universities are struggling financially – state schools because of state budget cuts and both private and state schools because of loss of revenue from this spring semester and possible continued loss of revenue from partial or complete online instruction in the fall. So, these universities may wish to admit more students than usual in upcoming years to ensure seats are filled. But on the other hand, with a wave of students possibly taking gap years, next year’s applying class could be massive. If that pushes more students to take gap years the following year, then the Fall 2022 could also have a large applying class. Furthermore, available campus space could be limited by the curtailing or cancellation of study abroad programs. With so much still up in the air, I have seen experts write that these upcoming years could be among the easiest to get into college, or among the hardest ever.
Such a range of possible outcomes forces us prepare for a range of situations. In any situation, a strong test score will be to your benefit. Students who can master the test will, and those students will continue to submit scores. The influence of the tests may wane overall, but even if they fall from, say, the second to third or fourth-most important item in a student’s admissions profile, that is still quite important. There is a razor-thin margin between the last 500 kids in and the last 500 kids out in any college’s admitted class. Without a test score, you may fall just behind a very similar student who does have a score (and a good one).
We recommend early testing even more strongly than usual this year because of the inherent uncertainty of all 2020 test dates. It’s possible, for instance, that some test dates will be held in the fall, but a resurgence of the virus then causes more closings and cancellations. So, while we wouldn’t recommend testing very early – like August or September – unless a student is already at an elite level, October and December test dates are even more desirable than usual. The October SAT and December ACT are also released tests – meaning you can get a copy of your actual test – so that fact makes those tests particularly attractive.
Test-optional is also a very murky title. Scholarship money usually requires testing. Athletes usually need to submit testing. Even at schools that are TO, many of the most rigorous programs within those schools – from business to nursing to engineering – still require scores. And scores are often used for placement out of remedial courses.
Nonetheless, I did say TO was more viable than ever. And it can be. But the decision to apply TO must be a deliberate decision made early in the application process. As Cornell stated in their testing announcement for rising seniors, TO is allowed, but students should expect the other aspects of their application to receive greater scrutiny if scores are omitted. That means that grades, essays, interviews, and extracurriculars must all be above-average to excellent. The time a student spends not prepping for tests must be reallocated into improving those facets of the application. Too often, I see juniors inquire about TO because they don’t quite have the scores they want, but they then realize that it’s “too late” because the grades and extracurriculars from freshman and sophomore year just weren’t quite there. If you’re going to go TO, you need to go “all-in:” no time spent on test prep – ideally from the start – and all of that time repurposed.
In uncertain situations, when you must plan for a range of outcomes, it is best to make plans that play well in each of the possible outcomes. A good or great test score can do nothing but help you, and achieving such a score is directly within your control.
We hope everyone is staying safe and healthy, and doing well enough. Please contact us with any questions.