Hello my stressed students and concerned parents alike! This is a very tricky time to be applying to colleges, and you have every right to be concerned. But try not to get too overwhelmed! To help you out, we will be covering a specific aspect of the admissions process that is in flux right now and has many people stressed. That’s right, I’m talking about testing requirements!
Types of Standardized Tests
Really quick, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. There are two types of Standardized Test that are widely accepted by colleges: the SAT and the ACT. Both of them are several hour-long multiple-choice tests with optional writing components. Both assess reading comprehension, writing skills, and mathematical abilities. The ACT also has a science-specific section. There is no significant advantage to taking one over the other; unless a college specifies otherwise, take the test that you perform better on.
Try taking at least one practice test of each to see which format best suits you. If you have a chance to register for the PSAT or PreACT, I recommend doing that as well. Remember that the SAT is graded out of 1600 points, and the ACT out of 36.
Standardized Testing - A (very short) history
Now, I could dive into the long and boring history of standardized testing, but that’s not what you’re here for. (If it is, feel free to click on this link and find out more!) You’re here to find out how this will impact your application specifically. So let’s keep the recap to a minimum: the past few years at most. The idea of not requiring standardized testing for applicants was slowly gaining traction throughout the 2000s, but it wasn’t until the coronavirus pandemic that things really kicked into gear nationwide. Suddenly, the idea of sending students to gather in crowded rooms and take a test wasn’t just nerve-wracking, it was irresponsible! The high school AP tests also famously shifted online, and issues with the system were reported by students everywhere. Various technical blunders caused many students to get failing grades. These scores weren’t reflecting academic achievement–they were negatively impacting their chances of getting into a good college!
What Standardized Testing Doesn’t Test (Or tests too well…)
With that in mind, a lot of universities decided to get rid of the testing segment entirely, instead relying on GPA, student transcripts, extracurriculars, and essays to determine student merit. SAT Subject Tests were already optional in a number of schools; this just extended that policy. You wouldn’t be penalized for not submitting test scores, but if you had them (and they were good), your application would have a slight advantage. Some colleges refused to accept scores entirely: that way there wouldn’t be any unfair advantages against students who didn’t have access to a testing center. Then the pandemic ended, and a bunch of universities decided, “You know what? Let’s keep doing this, actually.”
Why universities went test optional/blind - and why some are staying that way
I know what you’re thinking: ??????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Why on earth would tests go optional! This policy was designed as a sort of emergency measure for the covid pandemic; why keep it around now that a vaccine was out and lockdowns were lifted? Well, there’s a multitude of factors at play here. One key one is that all this discussion around the necessity of SATs and ACTs put them under scrutiny, revealing flaws that had been previously ignored. Here’s a depressing fact: the best predictor of SAT score is family income bracket. That’s not a joke. The difference between average scores of low and high income households is greater than any of gender, race, or any other sort of metric. When we think about this, it makes sense. Kids who come from wealthier homes can afford to pay for test-prep textbooks, personal tutors, and can pay to take the test multiple times if their first scores were unsatisfactory. This is particularly depressing because the original goal of Standardized Testing was to allow students of any background to demonstrate their academic aptitudes, with a guarantee of anonymous grading for fairness. A grader would only be able to judge the quality of work on the page, giving everyone an equal chance to show their knowledge.
Another reason for this switch is because it could have helped admissions offices view applications in a more holistic way. Instead of breaking down student value as a series of numbers (GPA, transcript scores, and test scores), they were required to give more focus to the qualitative aspects of the application. Extracurriculars and essay responses were now more carefully considered, since there were less materials to look at. Colleges don’t just want the smartest students; they want interesting people. Apparently, they were very happy with the incoming classes they ended up selecting, because several colleges are keeping this policy. Now, there are still a few schools who switched back: tech schools in particular. MIT requires standardized tests, Harvard does not. It’s not an indicator of school prestige to keep or ditch standardized tests, just a sign that they’re looking for certain types of students.
The last obstacle this decision lowered was financial obligation. Do you know how much money the SAT costs these days?! It’s $60 to take the main test, with extra fees depending on late registration, and $12 per score report sent out! If you’re applying to 15 colleges without fee waivers, that’s $240! And if you didn’t like your first score, and took the test again, it would be $300! If you took the ACT instead it wouldn’t be much better: $66 for the full test or $99 with writing, plus $16 dollars per score report brings you to $306 or $339 depending on what version you chose. And AP tests, those are $95 a pop, plus $15 per score report! Let’s say you took 5 AP tests–that’s seven hundred freaking dollars!! If you ever wondered how the CollegeBoard makes its money, this is how.
What does an admission world look like without standardized tests?
So. Standardized testing has a lot of pros and cons. What does this mean for your application strategy? Firstly, you should definitely try out both tests! Just because they aren’t required doesn’t mean you shouldn’t attempt them. The ACT and SAT have free practice questions (and sometimes even entire tests!) online. Try them and see how you score. If you get a score you’d be happy submitting to colleges, or a score that you think you could bring up with more studying, then you should register for the tests and continue practice taking them. An above average score (or a perfect score, if you’re lucky!) will really boost your application. If you don’t do as well as you like, or know you’re someone who doesn’t test well (and no shame there, we get it) then you can choose not to submit standardized test scores. You won’t be penalized, but you should probably find some other way to make your application stand out.
If they’re not looking at tests, what are they looking at?
If I was an admissions officer, here’s the ideal application I’d look for. First thing is the transcript, see how decent the grades are. Then the essay, read it to get a sense of both the student’s personality and writing strength. If both of those things are good, that’s great! But it’s still missing part of the picture. Onto the next part: extracurriculars. I’d like to see involvement in a sport and/or music, some community service, an award or two, and leadership in a club. Artistic involvement and science or engineering hobbies would be great too. I like students who are well-rounded, interested in a variety of different subjects and able to excel in multiple areas. This might sound like a random assortment of possibilities, but think of the skills they represent. These are students who are good at working on a team or collaboratively, students who think about how they relate to the world and give back to their communities, students who have good leadership skills. Think about how you can represent these qualities through your choice of extracurriculars, while also making sure you pick subjects you’re genuinely interested in. Do not pick things just because you think they’ll look good on a resume. If the debate team isn’t your passion, don’t do it! Think of your time like an investment: you can invest all this time you would have spent studying for a test into boosting your application through other means. Write a book of poetry! Join a new club! Take part in a cool research project! I firmly believe that being a good candidate is less important than being an interesting candidate. A million straight-A students will blend together, but that one underwater basket weaver with decent grades will stand out in an admissions officer’s mind.
Will ChatGPT make standardized tests required again?
ChatGPT and other AI are rapidly advancing in ability, making the future of the education system and potential jobs very unclear. Already ChatGPT can write papers for you, and that quality will only improve in the coming years. Since homework is by nature, take-home, we might see an increase in the use of in-person exams throughout the education system to prevent cheating on assignments. Standardized Tests have a variety of anti-cheat measures in place, but the online exams of the covid pandemic made enforcing that rather difficult. The ACT is now offering an online option, and as of 2024, the SAT will be going digital! Both claim to have new anti-cheat measures in place, and perhaps there will be a way to combat ChatGPT as well? It is unclear, so expect things to change in the coming years!
Ultimately the main goal of your college application is still the same: demonstrate your academic success and intellectual curiosities, show how you interact with the world when you aren’t in school, and give them a taste of your personality. You still need to get good grades in school, and you still need to write a killer Common App essay. Now, I think you’re just being made more aware of the prioritization of different parts of your application. This entire fiasco has been a peak behind the curtain of what college admissions offices consider important. To conclude, testing is obviously an imperfect science. This system hasn’t been working as intended for quite some time, and in time it will probably be replaced by another system with its own problems as well. That’s just how life is, and you won’t be able to change it. What you can do is be flexible. Learn how to adapt to these changes without letting them overthrow your life–that’s a skill more valuable than anything an SAT will ever teach you.
Bonus: Here’s a fun graph I stole from Smithsonian Magazine. Please put it back when you’re done with it. But also, don’t take this information at face value! Never trust graphs at first glance; data is very easy to misrepresent. Try this exercise: Can you find the original report where this data was sourced from? Is there a more recent update with more relevant information? I could have easily made this entire thing up, Excel isn’t that difficult. The ability to fact-check is extremely important, and not one that you’d find a practical exam for on a Standardized Test.
Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you are looking to build a great research profile, you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students that I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 2100 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.
Julianna is a senior at Harvard. She is majoring in English and vividly remembers the college admissions process. You got this guys!