What to do now about the SAT and ACT
If your student is applying to college in the next year or two, you might be wondering, “Does my student really need to take the SAT or ACT?” It’s a reasonable question – with each passing week, more colleges announce temporary test-optional policies. For many of our clients, the short answer is, yes, taking the test is a good idea. Still, you need a thoughtful plan to guide your decision.
Even parents who assume their child should take the SAT or ACT feel less certain about when and where to test, thanks to social distancing. The best approach is to know the facts, how they apply to your individual student, and make a plan based on that information. With an individualized plan, you’ll know what to do next and you’ll empower your student to proceed with more confidence.
Let’s start with the facts and answer some common questions so you can see a clear path towards what to do next about the SAT and ACT.
The facts – what’s going on with the SAT, ACT, and test-optional colleges right now?
Let’s do a quick re-cap about what’s happened in the world of testing recently. First, parents should know that test-optional policies are not new. Many colleges were test-optional before COVID-19, and the list was growing. Test-optional announcements picked up speed in March after the SAT and ACT cancelled their spring test dates.
Colleges, aware that students in the high school classes of 2020 and 2021 might not have sufficient testing opportunities, responded with temporary policies designed to let students apply even if they don’t have a test score. Many colleges, like Cornell and Tulane, have made clear that these new policies are a temporary response to COVID. Some colleges, like the University of California System and the University of Oregon were already considering adopting test-optional admissions when the pandemic took hold this spring. Still others, like Tufts and Elon, are treating their new test-optional policies as a multi-year “pilot” and will reevaluate whether to keep the policy permanently. We’ve been maintaining a list of these announcements for anyone who wants a school-by-school analysis.
In late May, the UC System culminated a multi-year review of it’s testing policies with an official decision to make the SAT and ACT optional for two years and then eliminate tests for in-state applicants after that. (The tests will still be required for out-of-state and international applicants, and will still be used for placement and scholarships.) Then, in early June, the College Board, makers of the SAT, released a statement asking colleges to grant applicants more flexibility due to limited testing opportunities during the pandemic. A series of schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, announced temporary test-optional policies following the College Board statement.
With all this news in mind, it’s no wonder parents are unsure what to do about the SAT and ACT. From a practical planning standpoint, the upshot of all these ongoing changes is simple: test-optional policies are more prevalent than ever, and many of the new policies are likely here to stay. This means informed college applicants need to understand what test-optional is, and what it isn’t.
What does test optional really mean?
Many parents and students hear the news that schools are going “test-optional” and quickly jump to the conclusion that the SAT and ACT don’t matter anymore. This is false. But it’s an understandable misconception. “Optional” sounds . . . well, optional. And why would anyone volunteer for an optional test? What “test-optional” really means is that test scores are not required in order to have your application considered. Test-optional does not mean test-blind. Test-optional schools will still consider scores, if you submit them, and good scores will always strengthen your application. At a selective test-optional school, students who have competitive scores still can and should submit them. A competitive test score serves as a confirmatory piece of evidence for the admissions committee.
While many of the newly-announced policies are temporary, we anticipate that some will end up becoming permanent – and that’s a good thing. It provides an opportunity for students to customize their application process, while ensuring that testing does not systematically deny students a shot at admission, whether due to COVID, access to educational resources, a learning difference, mental health concern, or any other life circumstance that may make it difficult, if not impossible, to take the tests and get scores that show your best abilities.
So, what should I do about testing?
Now that you’ve got the big picture and a clear understanding of how test-optional policies work, you have to figure out what’s best for your individual student. To make an optimal plan for your student, start by asking yourself some questions.
Question 1: How would my student do on the SAT or ACT?
Taking full-length practice SAT and ACT exams is a great way to see how your student would do on the official tests. To ensure reliable results, be sure that your student’s practice tests are full-length, official tests (written and released by the College Board and ACT, Inc.), and taken under timed conditions that mimic a real test day. We offer online proctored practice tests that meet all of these criteria. The results will show your students’ starting scores and give you a sense of how much more work your student might have to do to be within range for schools they’re interested in.
Question 2: Do I need to consider the SAT Subject Tests?
In admission cycles not impacted by COVID-19, SAT Subject Tests are recommended for students applying to many of the most selective schools in the country including Harvard, Brown, Penn, Yale, Dartmouth, Duke, Georgetown and others. In this extraordinary year, SAT Subject Tests are becoming deprioritized due to the widespread testing cancellations. Typically, most students take the SAT Subjects in May or June to correspond with their AP tests, but those administrations were cancelled across the country.
As a result of the shortage of testing opportunities, many colleges have announced that Subject Tests are being deprioritized this admissions cycle. Harvard announced: “You will not be disadvantaged in any way if you do not submit SAT Subject Tests,” and Yale announced: “SAT Subject Tests will not be considered during the 2020-21 admissions cycle.”
We haven’t heard from every admissions office regarding modifications of their policies, but we have to assume that SAT Subject Tests will be of secondary importance this year due to ongoing access issues. Consider taking the SAT Subjects if and only if you’ve achieved a competitive score on the SAT or ACT, your college list has schools that recommend these tests, and you can secure a seat for an upcoming administration. In an ordinary year roughly a quarter million students take the SAT Subject Tests, but this year that number could fall below 50,000 due to the pandemic. Strong SAT Subject Test scores will certainly be more rare this year and will stand out, but we anticipate that admissions officers will not penalize students who cannot take these tests.
Question 3: What are the testing policies at the colleges on my student’s list?
Whether your student has an official college “list” or not, they should take some time to look at current testing policies and score ranges at schools they’re interested in. Testing information can typically be found on each college’s admissions website. Each school has a slightly different approach, so it’s very important to know what your student’s schools are looking for. Some will still require the SAT and ACT for all applicants, some will be test-optional, and many will have temporary test-optional policies that they adopted in response to COVID-19. For this reason, it’s important to note the time frames for any current policies – many of the newly-adopted test-optional policies are only for students applying during the 2020-21 admissions cycle – i.e., rising seniors.
Question 4: What are the testing requirements for scholarships at my student’s schools?
While your student is researching colleges and testing policies, they should also look at merit scholarship opportunities at those schools. Many colleges offer merit scholarships to students who meet certain academic criteria and, often, SAT and ACT scores are required to qualify, even at test-optional schools. Similarly, aspiring college athletes need to be aware of NCAA and Ivy League testing requirements that may impact their testing plans and score goals.
Question 4: What is my student’s testing timeline?
Your student’s testing timeline will depend on a variety of factors, including current grade level, admissions deadlines at your student’s colleges of interest, and other activities and commitments your student has throughout the year. Ideally, you’ll map out a timeline that comfortably allows for three test dates and 8 to 12 weeks of preparation before the first official test. This year, the possibility of test date delays or limited testing seats (due to COVID and social distancing) will need to be factored in as well.
Rising juniors who start considering the above factors now should be able to make an effective plan and adapt as needed throughout the next year to ensure that they have the scores they need to submit their personal best application. Juniors may prep this summer, while other demands are light, and refresh the content in advance of an official testing administration. Rising seniors will have the priority at testing centers around the country, so it is likely that juniors will have to wait until the late fall or early winter to take official tests, once the seniors make their way through the testing process.
Special timeline guidance for rising seniors
Many rising seniors were not able to take the SAT and ACT this spring and now have to figure out how to take the tests before admissions deadlines this fall and winter. With the added layer of test date uncertainty due to COVID, we know this can feel like a daunting task. First, start with the basics by asking yourself the first three questions above (if you haven’t already). With that information in mind, you can tackle the timeline question in a way that’s tailored to your individual student’s needs.
A critical consideration for all seniors this fall will be whether to apply early decision or wait for regular decision deadlines. Seniors who have not yet taken the SAT or ACT may find it tough to get the scores they need before the early decision deadlines this fall, but regular decision deadlines, typically in January, should allow more room for preparation and testing.
We typically advise students to use practice tests to determine whether the SAT or ACT is a better fit and then focus entirely on that one test. In this atypical year, seniors might consider registering for both the SAT and ACT as a way to ensure a higher likelihood of available test dates. The two tests overlap considerably in content, so prepping for one will help students be ready for 80 to 90% of the other. Once a student has secured a test date with one test or the other, they can do some final prep to adjust for any nuances or differences between the two tests.
In some districts and states, school-based SAT and ACT testing will allow many students to take an admissions test, even if they were unable to secure a seat for one of the national administrations. This should help meet some of the demand for testing. Beyond the school-day administrations, the ACT may be offering an at-home test before the end of the year, and this would theoretically allow every student who wants to take the ACT the opportunity to do so. This would clear away a great deal of the unmet demand for testing, potentially allowing students who cannot remote test (due to internet or technology or access issues) the opportunity to test in a brick and mortar testing facility. In the event this materializes, students should seriously consider this option, especially if they’ve been unable to test before this.
Special advice for everyone: it’s an unusual year, and colleges know that
Yes, it’s always wise to plan, and students should work hard to put their best foot forward. That’s why we’ve taken the time to provide the advice in this article. But perhaps the most important thing to remember this year is that, sometimes, even the best laid plans need to be adjusted. Some students, especially rising seniors, may experience test date delays or not be able to take the test as many times as they’d hoped.
A recent survey of nearly 10,000 students in the classes of 2020 and 2021 shows that students who may feel “behind” in their college search and testing process are in good company this year. The colleges know this is an issue, and we anticipate that they’ll all be a bit more flexible this year. In the end, having some testing, rather than no testing, will be advantageous for most students. We’ll be here to help our students as they navigate this process.