Fall SAT and ACT Testing Guidance
When it comes to the likelihood of securing a seat for an SAT or ACT test during a pandemic, geography is everything. If you are lucky enough to live in Atlanta, you should be able to find a seat for an SAT or ACT relatively quickly and conveniently. As of Monday evening, logging into CollegeBoard.org and ACT.org, I found available spots for the August SAT and September ACT within 10 miles of my house. If, on the other hand, you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, things will not be so convenient. As of last night, there were no remaining seats for an SAT within 75 miles until the December test. Similarly, the ACT is booked solid until December, where the nearest seat is 25 miles away in Vallejo, CA. Testing is relatively easy in Atlanta, but tough in the Bay. Similar disparities are playing out across the country: easy access for some, long delays and drives for others.
To address the relative scarcity of seats during national administrations of the SAT and ACT, many high schools, public and private, are offering their students school-day testing opportunities to ensure they complete their testing in time for application deadlines. Schools may choose to spread the test administrations over multiple days to ensure social distancing is maintained.
It is likely there will be little relief coming in the form of remotely proctored SATs or ACTs. The College Board has officially punted on a remote SAT in 2020, and while the ACT, Inc. has plans to roll out a remote proctoring solution on a “limited basis” in late fall/early winter, there is no guarantee the timing or scale of the rollout will make any significant impact to address the testing shortfall. Knowing the constraints are real and the supply of test seats is limited, how should parents and students approach the question of testing in the fall?
Registration: Who has priority?
The College Board allowed seniors and those who had their spring registrations cancelled to sign up during a priority registration period, which has now concluded. The ACT did not prioritize registration for seniors, but auto-enrolled many students who had seen their April, June or July administrations cancelled because of the pandemic. Thankfully, many seniors obtained SAT and ACT spots during the first weeks of registration. However, many seniors still remain without a testing spot.
Now that the short priority registration window has closed for the College Board, it seems we are in open-season for both the SAT and ACT. It appears that seniors have as much of a shot at securing an available seat as do freshmen. Seniors should be afforded ongoing priority for open seats, but the ACT has made it clear that their system “does not allow for priority registration by class.” Rather than regulate the flow of signups, the ACT, Inc. has requested that students regulate their own registrations. Last week the official ACT Twitter feed posted this message: “Juniors, be a buddy to your fellow seniors in need of scores for deadlines. Please consider registering later this week for a December or Spring date.” I cringed when I read that. Systemic prioritization of seniors makes sense, and it’s not clear why the ACT has declined to implement this policy. Alas, that is our current situation.
What is the availability in your region?
Many parents have asked what is the best approach for their kids in terms of taking the SAT and ACT? The first step is to log in to the student’s College Board and/or ACT account to determine the availability of testing in your area. The advice will differ based on the availability.
To begin, you must login to your account and click the register button.
Enter your basic information and your zip code to see the available testing sites.
You will see the tests arrayed by date and location:
Note that if there are no seats available, you can click “Show farther sites” to expand the range of available test centers.
The College Board asks you to select a test date to see available test centers.
You will see sites with available seats in black font and sites without seats grayed out.
Click the box for “Only show available test centers” in the upper right and click the hyper-linked text at the bottom: “Try expanding your search to 75 miles of your zip code.”
Using these buttons, you can get a better sense of how far you will need to travel to find your testing seat. If nothing is available for your selected test date, you will need to click the button to “select a different test date” and go through the same exercise.
In certain cases, you may need to search from different geographies to find an available seat. For example, I had a hard time finding a test site with 75 miles of Boston, but when I searched from a zip code in Lowell, MA, I was able to find a spot about an hour from Boston.
Crafting a plan
What to do if I’m a senior?
If you are a rising senior, you’ll want to get a plan in place now, but also remain flexible and have back-up testing lined up. While things feel very uncertain, remember that test-optional policies will be available this year if testing does not work as planned.
Have a backup test
If you haven’t done any testing yet, but you are ready to begin the process and the cost is not prohibitive (or you qualify for fee waivers), you should register for at least one SAT and one ACT in the fall so you can mitigate the risk of cancellations. The SAT and ACT overlap 80% and the preparation you have completed for one test will largely transfer to the other in the event you have to switch. Be mindful that this goes against our typical guidance of choosing a testing lane, but these are not ordinary times.
If you do have one test date secured for the fall, it seems prudent to sign up for a second test date as a back-up. You may not need both administrations, but it’s better to be safe than sorry and spend the extra money/use the fee waivers to ensure that if one administration is cancelled, you’ll have a back-up. So, if you are a senior without any official testing under your belt, and the availability exists in your market, consider signing up for either an SAT and an ACT or two of either test.
Late test dates are okay, too
You may need to sign up for December testing, but this is perfectly okay. If the only test date you’re able to secure is after the early deadline at your favorite school, you may still have options. Because many schools have implemented a test-optional policy in the wake of COVID-19, you may be able to apply ‘early’ without scores. Just be sure to check the specific policies at the colleges on your list. If you’re admitted early at a test optional school, you won’t have to test at all. If your early application is deferred, you can take the later test as scheduled and strengthen your application in regular decision review.
And there’s a possibility schools will extend their deadlines to allow later tests to become part of the admissions process. The anticipated, though yet unannounced, January SAT may be a factor for the class of 2021. Sending updated test-scores can provide a boost to an application. Additionally, every year we have students taking the SAT or ACT after they’ve submitted their applications to achieve score thresholds for merit-based scholarships.
Check for new seats
For those seniors who are in the toughest regions in the country where demand grossly outstrips supply (e.g., San Francisco and Seattle) be sure to check back to www.collegeboard.org and act.org periodically as the testing organizations may be adding new test centers and seats over time. Additionally ACT.org is allowing students to standby for free for the September test dates in the event new seats become available.
What to do if I’m a junior with an official fall registration?
If you’ve already secured a test date and you’ve begun prepping in earnest, should you give up that test date? We don’t believe that is the prudent move. You’ve invested time and resources and you’re moving towards a specific testing date. If you give up your spot, it may go to a sophomore or another junior; there’s zero guarantee it will help a senior in need, given the current system of registration. Because of this, we advocate you continue on your path and complete the test you are registered for.
If you’ve secured a test date, but you have not begun any preparation, you have options. You can transfer your registration without any fees through the end of September on the CollegeBoard and without a noted expiration date on ACT.org. If you have signed up for an early registration that could potentially benefit a senior in need, you could yield that spot and select a later date. It may go to a senior, but it may not, but in either case you’ve suffered no negative consequences, as you’ve yet to begin preparations.
What to do if I’m a junior without an official fall registration?
If you have not yet signed up for a test date and have not yet done any preparation, consider waiting until later in the year when the seniors will have completed their testing. This may be in December in one region, or the late winter/early spring tests in another area. We often counsel juniors to wait until later in the year if they need to complete a semester of Algebra 2 or a semester of advanced reading. We also ask juniors to look at the calendar and determine the best time for testing given their activities and academic demands. For some, the fall is not the optimal time for prep. Your calendar, academic demands, and outside commitments should help guide the schedule.
Should I submit my scores?
In a world of test-optional admissions, the rule of thumb is send scores if they strengthen your application. Think of them like AP or IB scores that you can choose to include in your application. If you score a 4 or 5 on an AP test, that says something about your level of mastery of a subject. It’s typically wise to send the 4s and 5s and withhold the 1s and 2s. Similar logic applies to the SAT Subject Tests, where you have an incentive to send competitive scores, but withhold weaker ones. If your SAT/ACT scores are in the bottom quartile for a college, your application is not going to get a boost by sending them. Better to let the admissions officers dwell in mystery. If, however, your scores are strong, by all means send them, as they’ll be a factor in your application. Admissions officers consider all your accomplishments, even ones that are optional.
Having a good test score in this admissions cycle may carry significant weight in a year when many other differentiating factors have been diminished. GPAs have been affected by Pass/Fail Zoom semesters. Many after-school activities were disrupted. The ability to show up to a campus and demonstrate interest has been affected. Admissions officers at highly selective institutions are expecting a historic crush of applications now that tests have become optional for the year. The thousands of potential applicants who normally would self-select out due to low test scores may well select into the pool, making a differentiated application all the more important.
In this testing season, the name of the game will be flexibility. Juniors and seniors need to make plans and then remain nimble and understand that even the best laid plans may have to be adjusted. We know this can feel stressful, but it’s important to remember that the college admissions officers will remain nimble as well. Admissions officers know how to read holistically and admit students using a variety of factors. Some students submit SAT Subject scores, while others do not. Some list their AP/IB scores, while others do not. Some have counselor recommendations, while others do not. Admissions officers are experienced enough to shift the admissions calculus based on the information available in a given application.
There are many paths towards an offer of admission, and college admissions offices will be unusually creative and adaptive in this admissions cycle. The main thing is to put your best foot forward in your application – include the parts that best reflect your abilities – so, if you have solid test scores that help confirm your academic strengths, all the better.