4 minute read
In March of 2020, we posted a blog discussing increasing numbers of colleges and universities choosing to go test-optional. Little did we know that in a few months, many more colleges would consider themselves temporarily test-optional because of the Covid-19 pandemic closing testing centers. While the landscape keeps changing, the goal, as always, is to present colleges with your best application — and test scores remain an integral part of that application.
In December’s blog, we discussed the current and future landscape of test-optional admissions, and this month, we’re focusing on how students can apply this knowledge to their personal college plans.
Spoiler Alert: It’s still best to prepare for, and take, the SAT and/or ACT so that students can highlight as many of their strengths as possible in their applications. This, then, gives colleges an even stronger reason to accept a student and award them with scholarship money.
Do SAT and ACT scores even matter anymore?
We believe they do, and colleges agree. When colleges call themselves test-optional, they’re not saying that they’re throwing all considerations of standardized test scores out the window. Instead, they’re offering test scores as an optional piece for students to include to boost the overall strength of their applications.
As we discuss below, students will want to show colleges as many of their strengths as possible, including test scores. When a college becomes test-optional, it does not mean that the college is now easier to get into. In fact, it is often harder to get into now since even more students apply to test-optional colleges. In this new landscape, a strong test score can really help a student stand out in an overcrowded field.
In addition, the range of average test scores for colleges ranges markedly depending on their level of selectivity. Thus, while a student may think that their score isn’t strong enough for a particular college, it may hit the sweet spot at other schools. And as you know, when applying to colleges, it’s always best to have a range of college options from which to choose.
Let’s do a little thought exercise by putting ourselves in the shoes of the admissions officers.
You and your friend Charlie are at a local farmer’s market picking up produce for the week. You realize that it’s lunchtime, and you both are craving pizza. The farmer’s market has two pizza stalls, Leo’s Pizza and Donatello’s Pizza, so you decide to each visit one of the stalls and then discuss which one seems like a better choice.
You go to Leo’s Pizza and are greeted by a server, who says that their special today is a hot and melty veggie pizza. She mentions that the lemonade is very delicious and that the brownie is also pretty good. But, she adds, the salad is not the best today. It’s still okay, but the lettuce could be a bit fresher and the carrots’ color has faded. You hadn’t asked about the salad and weren’t planning to order it, but the server’s information makes you doubt your original enthusiasm for Leo’s Pizza. You thank the server and walk back to meet Charlie.
Meanwhile, Charlie is chatting with a server at Donatello’s Pizza, who says that his favorite dish is their delectable white pizza. He says it goes perfectly with a refreshing Italian soda. He asks if Charlie found any especially good produce today, and Charlie says that they were excited to find some portobello mushrooms. The server compliments Charlie on their purchase and tells Charlie that they can use the stems of the mushrooms to make stock instead of throwing them out. Charlie thanks the server for the tip and walks back to find out how your pizza research went.
You share with Charlie that Leo’s Pizza seemed like a good choice. The server said that the pizza and lemonade are very good, the brownie is pretty good, but the salad isn’t very good. Charlie reports that at Donatello’s Pizza, both the pizza and Italian soda are very good, and the server offered them some unexpected knowledge on using mushrooms, which Charlie really enjoyed. You and Charlie decide to go to Donatello’s because the server highlighted its strengths and added in an extra perk – the mushroom stem tip. The server at Leo’s Pizza was a little too upfront about both its strengths and weaknesses, which did not work in its favor.
You see where we’re going with this – students’ applications should focus on their strengths, not their weaknesses.
Just like how a person wouldn’t volunteer information about what skills they do not have during a job interview, students shouldn’t feel like they have to volunteer a test score that doesn’t strengthen their application. Similarly, even if a college does require submission of test scores, students should explore any options of submitting pieces (written pieces, other rankings or scores, letters of recommendation, certificates from activities, etc.) that are a bit outside of the standard requirements. Colleges may invite these extra submissions, or students can contact admissions officers for advice.
Colleges want to brag about their students. Give them something extra (like the mushroom stock tip) that tells your story.
Admissions officers are always keeping an eye toward recruitment because students are constantly flowing into and out of matriculation. To draw donors and future students, they want ways to brag about their current students. Sure – touting high GPAs and SAT scores is one way to compare students. But as the world increasingly recognizes that the greatest successes come from a wide array of people, colleges are looking for more creative ways to brag. Include anything that an admissions officer could get excited about: service work, being the first in the family to attend college, balancing jobs and internships with school work, or having creative or artistic skills.
No matter the score, it’s better to have SAT and/or ACT scores on hand but not need them, than to need them but not have them.
Choosing a college is a big decision, and for many students, the list of colleges to which they’re considering applying looks very different from the list of colleges that actually receive applications. A lot can change in the months leading up to applications being due, including colleges offering more or less aid, a new housing option becoming available, or colleges dropping or adding preferred study programs.
There’s no worse feeling during the college application process than deciding to apply to a school and realizing that it’s too late to complete the tests that the school requires. Through fee waivers, both the SAT and the ACT strive to make the test financially possible for all students, and The Answer Class recommends that all students have at least an SAT or ACT test score handy when applying to colleges. Think of it as keeping an umbrella on hand in case it rains.
What’s the game plan for taking the SAT and/or ACT?
Like we said before, it’s always better to have a test score than to not have one at all and the best-case scenario is to have a test score (or two or three) that reflects the work that was put into it.
Contrary to popular belief, students can and must prepare for the tests and the sooner they start, the better. The PSAT acts as practice for the SAT, but we recommend that students also take a practice full-length SAT (and/or ACT). Each of our classes starts with a practice test to enable students to really experience how the test content and timing feel.
Students should aim to receive their SAT and/or ACT scores with plenty of time to spare before college applications are due. That way, students can have an option to take a test again or try a different test. (This is another case where students would rather be safe than sorry – they could realize after the first test that they could change their strategy and score higher next time.)
Our final thoughts
The gradual change of colleges moving from requiring standardized test scores to making submission optional will allow students to feel more confident applying to more selective schools. The SAT and ACT will likely remain significant parts of a college application (and they should be given the appropriate care and preparation), and at the same time, we’re glad that students have the opportunity to let all of their strengths shine.
College deadlines tend to sneak up on students and their families, so the best time to register for an SAT or ACT class is right about…now. Choose the dates that work best for your student and family!
Read more about the test-optional world in our blogs, “Test-Optional: What Does It Mean for You?” and “What is This Test-Optional Thing and What Do I Need to Know?”.