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COVID-19 and Test-Optional Policies

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

Happy March!

It's been nearly a year since COVID-19 arrived and uprooted our personal and professional lives. As you may know, the pandemic has impacted the college admissions landscape, too, complicating all aspects of standardized testing, including ACT and SAT administration. Among other problems, test centers have closed, sometimes at the last minute. As recently as a few weeks ago, ACT left students in New York City and outside St. Louis without the tests they signed up for.

A growing number of U.S. colleges and universities have responded to testing deficiencies by implementing test-optional policies, meaning an applicant MAY submit ACT or SAT scores as part of the college application, but is not required to. This movement is expected to continue, at least for one more admissions cycle. Here’s the current (and frequently updated) list of test-optional colleges for 2021-2022: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing

Test-optional is not a new idea. Prior to 2019, a few hundred small-medium colleges had such policies in place, and the movement was gaining traction. Bates, Bowdoin, Middlebury, Pitzer, Wake Forest, and Wesleyan (CT), all highly selective schools which have been test-optional for a number of years, have traditionally prided themselves on holistic evaluation of each applicant, maintaining that a student is not just a test score. Of course, without the SAT or ACT in the equation, admission committees will scrutinize grades, course rigor, extracurricular activities, essays, letters of recommendation and other special considerations more closely.

Smaller colleges undeniably receive fewer applications than large state universities do, so they have the capacity to conduct holistic review processes. Big schools, however, with tens of thousands of applications annually, have relied heavily on standardized test scores to distinguish applicants from one another. Pre-pandemic, when it still required test scores, University of Michigan had about 66,000 applications and said “yes” to 17,000 (7,000 students enrolled). Without required SATs or ACTs, evaluating applications presents myriad challenges for a large school, even with its sizable admissions staff.

For this year’s application cycle, two-thirds of U.S. colleges, including many large universities, went test-optional. This begs the question: How can colleges fairly evaluate applications if only a fraction of the students submitted their scores this season? No one can know for certain how this plays out until April when applicants receive notifications, but I predict that smaller schools, such as the pre-COVID 19 test-optional colleges and others who have followed suit, will continue to practice holistic evaluation, so students who didn’t submit scores will have a fair-ish chance of admission. Conversely, scoreless applicants to highly selective large state schools such as UVA, UNC and Michigan might not fare as well. But if a school says it’s “test-optional,” it can’t merely deny all the students who didn’t submit scores.

What does this mean for current juniors? For my clients, it means they need to keep preparing for standardized tests and sign up to take them this spring or summer. They may as well hedge their bets, and they may end up with great, submission-worthy scores!

If juniors have not yet begun preparing for standardized tests, here's what I would suggest:

-Take both a free ACT AND SAT on your own. Practice SATs are available on the College Board website: Free Official SAT Practice Tests | College Board. The ACT site provides its practice tests here: Preparing for the ACT 2020–2021.

-Score both tests and see which one comes out higher. The above-mentioned sites provide you with scoring sheets, and you can compare SAT with ACT scores here: ACT to SAT Score Conversion Chart

-Then, study for the test that suits you and your strengths best. I would be happy to recommend some excellent test-prep companies. Alternatively, both College Board and ACT offer free test-prep resources, as does Khan Academy:

Fingers crossed we have widespread vaccination in time for students to take standardized tests if they wish. If they don’t do as well as they’d hoped, they can apply to test-optional schools and choose not to submit their scores… at least for one more year!

One final bit of good news on the testing front: SAT subject tests are going away, hopefully forever, after May 2021. Good riddance to those! You can read the official College Board announcement here: College Board Will No Longer Offer SAT Subject Tests or SAT with Essay.

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