Does Taking the ACT or SAT Still Matter for College Admissions?
The title of this blog post is not a question that I have heard frequently in my recent consultations with families. At least, not in those exact words. At the same time, it’s a question that has been stated indirectly during every one of those conversations, through suggestion and less direct questioning about what colleges require and expect of students in the post-2020 landscape. The pre-existing framework of ACT/SAT testing and its place in college admissions was drastically altered last year, and those changes mostly continue into 2021. It’s very understandable that students and families have questions about what’s going on with tests and college application requirements currently, and my goal with this post is to answer the most frequently asked inquiries. Click on a given question below to jump to that section of the post:
First, let’s address the most recent news and updates from the two major testing organizations:
Didn’t I see something in the news recently about the SAT being cancelled permanently?
Yes and no. The College Board, the institution in charge of creating and administering the SAT, recently made a big announcement about permanently discontinuing some of its components. However, the features that are being eliminated are the optional essay portion of the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests, neither of which has been considered as a primary factor in college admissions in recent years. For more information about these changes, check out Lily’s excellent blog post and Josefine’s illuminating webinar, both of which address this question and much more. Despite the above modifications, the SAT overall is still very much alive and coming to a testing site near you in March and beyond.
Whatever happened to those new ACT features that were supposed to begin this school year?
Right, the ACT had announced in October 2019 that it would be rolling out exciting new updates to make testing more flexible and, potentially, more favorable for students hoping to put their best foot forward through college applications. Those features include online testing (which would allow students to receive test scores within two business days), section retesting (the most popular of these updates among students I have discussed this news with), and remote proctoring (seems appropriate in the context of the past year, no?).
The plan was for these updates to be implemented starting in September 2020, but that didn’t end up taking place, and for good cause: With current high school seniors facing the prospect of multiple ACT dates being cancelled at their nearby testing sites, the ACT’s leadership group wisely opted to postpone the shiny new updates and focus on providing opportunities for those seniors to take at least one official ACT. Now that the testing cycle for current seniors has passed, it’s a good time check in on what’s next for the new features. According to the most current statements from the ACT, these features will not be introduced at any point during the 2020-2021 school year, which means the soonest we might see them will be Fall 2021.
Although it’s not guaranteed the updates will be ready for rollout this September, that would be great news for current juniors if they are, as there will still be a few official test dates those students can participate in during the first half of their senior year. The best way to keep up with forthcoming ACT news is to periodically check the ACT’s official website, especially the “Newsroom & Blog” section.
Now let’s talk about the most common questions that students and families are asking me as they map out their college planning timeline for 2021 and 2022:
What does it mean for a college to be “test optional”? What about “test blind”?
Test optional colleges are those that do not require students to submit official ACT or SAT scores as part of their admission application. Those schools do not penalize any applicants who omit test scores, as a matter of policy, and instead review every other component of the student’s application with slightly more weight. Students who do wish to submit ACT or SAT scores with their application have the option to do so, and their scores will be considered in the context of the rest of their application details. It may seem questionable for admissions officers to use two different systems of evaluation with the same pool of applicants, but remember that these decisions are being made by human beings, not algorithms; colleges with test optional admissions are confident that their holistic decision-making process can fairly differentiate between students who do and do not include ACT/SAT scores.
Test blind colleges begin with the same basic premise that ACT and SAT tests should not be a mandatory factor in admissions decisions and take it a step further. Instead of leaving the option open to each student of whether to submit test scores or not, test blind schools completely remove the tests from the equation. These colleges won’t even glance at your ACT/SAT scores if you send them. It’s like if you’re trying to tell a friend something important and your friend plugs their ears, closes their eyes, and repeats “I can’t hear you, I can’t heeear you” over and over. Despite the negative connotations of that metaphor, test blind decision-making can actually be a really positive feature for many students who have above average grades in school but don’t score well on timed tests. Test blind admissions are nowhere near as prevalent as test optional, but there is a very high profile example of test blind for California-based students in the form of the University of California and California State University systems. Beginning with the Fall 2021 incoming class, the UC system has decided to leave ACT and SAT test scores completely out of admission and scholarship decisions.
The long term plan is to find an alternate form of assessment for students to demonstrate college readiness; for the time being, it means that students applying to UC campuses will not have their test scores considered as an admissions factor. The CSU system elected to temporarily switch to test blind admissions for the Fall 2021 incoming class, but they have not announced yet whether they will go back to requiring ACT/SAT scores for Fall 2022 and beyond.
Where can I find out if a given college I’m interested in is test optional or test blind?
There are multiple resources students can use to find out the testing policy of a school of interest, ranging from college data websites like College Navigator and Niche to college planning software like Guided Path and College Planner Pro. To simplify the process of finding accurate information, let me spotlight my two favorite sources of test optional information.
First, the test optional database curated by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest for short) is a treasure trove of helpful info. FairTest’s website organizes their frequently-updated database of all test optional and test blind colleges in three ways, depending on your research preferences: First, there is a search function for those who just want to quickly check on a single college’s testing requirements (top right corner of the window on the website’s landing page). Students looking to browse or check on multiple schools at once might prefer using the alphabetical list, which can also be sorted by state for those wanting to review the test optional schools in a given region. Finally, FairTest’s chronological list of schools is organized by the timing of when each school adopted its testing policy, which provides an intriguing look at the growth of the test optional movement since 2005. Predictably, the list of schools that made the switch during 2020 is massive.
In addition to the FairTest database (and it’s an excellent website overall with lots more to explore), I always refer to students and families to a college’s official website to find the most up-to-date and detailed information about its testing policy. Although the simple fact of whether a school requires ACT/SAT scores or not can be determined on the FairTest website, it’s best to also review a given college’s official site, specifically its admissions section, to find out the nitty gritty details, like whether they accept superscoring and how ACT/SAT scores factor into merit scholarship consideration. Even the UC schools, while being test blind for admissions and scholarship decisions, do still use ACT/SAT scores for the California statewide guarantee program. For those who protest that college websites can sometimes be hard to navigate, there’s nothing wrong with doing a quick Google search like this: “________ University Test Policy”; the top search result will generally be the section of the university’s official website that outlines its testing requirements.
Let’s say I do take the ACT or SAT just to be safe. How do I know whether I should include my scores in my application or not?
This is a great, great question, but the answer largely depends on context (what are your scores and which colleges are you applying to?) and should be considered on a case-by-case basis. Nonetheless, a general rule of thumb is to look up the college’s averages based on previous incoming freshman classes and compare them to your own scores. If you fall in the middle 50% or top 25% ranges (especially in the upper half of the middle 50%) of average ACT/SAT scores, I would usually recommend reporting your test results because they will add value to your application; if your scores are in the lower end of those averages, they will not positively enhance your standing as an applicant and should probably not be reported. Relatively high test scores can be used to provide a nice positive counterbalance for students with lower GPAs (although there is a “floor,” or lower limit, to acceptable GPAs and academic performance in high school classes is the single most important factor in college admissions), while students with relatively high GPAs who don’t perform well on the ACT or SAT can count on putting their best foot forward by leaving out the test scores. For additional helpful insights into these complex considerations, check out Josefine’s recent webinar.
Do I need to take the ACT or SAT to get into a good college?
Let’s wrap up by getting to the heart of the matter. To answer this question, we first need to distinguish between a “good college” and a “good-fit college.” The former phrase implies a qualitative judgment of a college’s overall worth on a binary scale, while the latter allows for a non-binary appraisal of each school that factors in each individual student’s personal criteria for what makes a “good fit.” If it’s not clear from those descriptions, the term “good college” is not really useful when it comes to college planning because there is no single qualitative measure of how “good” a given school is. Instead, the way to go about building an effective college list is to focus on fit, a strategy that acknowledges that one size does not fit all. In the context of this question, creating a list of good-fit colleges can include testing requirements as a criterion.
In March 2021, the decision of whether to take the ACT/SAT or not partially depends on which colleges a student plans to apply to. For current juniors who have already compiled their good-fit college list, they can research the testing policies for each school on the list to help make the decision. If all schools on the list are test optional or test blind, that student can treat the ACT or SAT as a luxury; the best case scenario leads to a strong test score that will boost the student’s admissions chances, while the worst that could happen is a lower test score that test optional schools don’t even need to know exists. If at least one of the schools on a student’s good-fit list requires test scores, that student should 100% take the ACT or SAT because the alternative would be not applying to that particular college. For the gray area in between, where most students will find themselves, my recommendation at this point is to increase your options by taking the ACT or SAT at least once, and retaking it once or twice more if appropriate. My rationale for this advice is that it would be preferable for a student to take a test that doesn’t end up being needed than to not be able to apply to one of the top schools on the list due to a lack of test scores. With the limited information about Fall 2022 testing policies that we now have, there is still good reason to believe that ACT/SAT scores can boost a student’s chances of admission and merit scholarship consideration.
In closing, I’d like to spotlight some interesting findings from market research that the ACT recently conducted with the help of a third-party organization. The aim of this research was to gain insight into how COVID-19 and test optional growth affected standardized testing in the context of college admissions. Some of the findings outlined are interesting but predictable, such as the observation that test-optional growth was steady before March 2020 but spiked immediately following ACT/SAT cancellations. Other observations provide some possible clues of what to expect moving forward. For example, it seems unlikely that a significant number of colleges will adopt test blind admissions, as the value of standardized testing (along with the use of testing data throughout the enrollment process) is still too high for ACT/SAT scores to be thrown out altogether. It’s much more likely that students will continue to be provided the option to report test scores without being required to do so. Additionally, the research finding that admissions counselors are experiencing more difficulty with evaluating applications without test scores is not surprising, but it’s interesting to consider, especially since scholarship decisions seem to be affected by this challenge the most.
There’s no question that we’re currently in the middle of a period of transition for how colleges evaluate applicants and build incoming student classes. In the coming months, we will continue to monitor any updates and share what we discover through free resources such as this blog and the numerous upcoming webinars we have planned. Stay tuned, and please reach out for a free consultation if you have any questions or concerns.