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The SAT/ACT COVID pickle - What do I do?

Updated: Sep 1, 2020

One of my favorite films from the 1990s is Groundhog Day, a time-bending comedy in which

a TV weatherman (played by the incomparable Bill Murray) is forced to relive the same day over and over. He wakes up each day at the same time, hears the same Sonny & Cher song on the radio, and experiences the same sequence of interactions with his co-workers and the townspeople of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Without spoiling anything, it’s fair to say that our hero gets put through the wringer by the time he finally realizes the key to escaping the time loop.

When I think of the circumstances rising seniors and their families have been dealing with this year in regards to ACT and SAT testing, Groundhog Day keeps popping up in my mind like a bad case of deja vu. Dating back to March of this year, when pandemic lockdowns became widespread, official ACT and SAT dates have repeatedly been cancelled or postponed for public health reasons. Not only that, but specific testing centers have cancelled their test administration with merely hours of notice for registered test-takers. It’s common these days to hear from rising seniors who have been registered for three or four test dates since March, with zero actual tests taken. My sincere sympathies go out to these students and their families, especially since, unlike Groundhog Day, you are not guaranteed a happy Hollywood ending to this saga. If you are a rising senior or junior, or the parent of one, it’s likely that you have very legitimate concerns about the status of ACT/SAT testing this fall.

In this post, I will touch on several concerns about upcoming ACT/SAT testing and how it factors into college admissions decisions. Read on for answers to the following:

  1. What are the latest updates on the ACT and SAT for this fall?

  2. Will the ACT or SAT test date I’m registered for actually happen?

  3. What do I do if my test date gets cancelled or the testing center closes?

  4. Is it a problem that I won’t be able to take more than one official test?

  5. What about if my only official score is from February or earlier, and I know I could score higher now, but all the test dates are full in my area?

  6. I’m a senior and the only test date I could successfully register for is in December. Is that too late for colleges to accept my ACT or SAT score?

  7. I’m a junior and want to get started as soon as possible on testing, but I wasn’t able to register for any fall dates. Is that bad?

  8. What do I do in the meantime?

What are the latest updates on the ACT and SAT for this fall?

Typically, the ideal testing timeline for high school seniors when it comes to college application planning would involve taking two or three official tests during junior year, with possibly one additional test date the summer after junior year, if a student really wants to try one more time to reach a goal score. In other words, being wrapped up with ACT or SAT testing before the start of senior year is preferable. This context helps to illustrate why rising seniors have been dealt such a bad hand this year, as many of the college-bound seniors we work with at Strive to Learn have yet to take a single official test.

To make up for the series of cancelled tests throughout the spring, both the College Board and ACT, Inc. have developed countermeasures aimed to accommodate the needs of this year’s senior class. The College Board announced in April that it would be developing a digital version of the exam to be used if the pandemic continued into the fall. In early June, however, the organization reversed course and decided to postpone the digital option, citing technological challenges. It’s likely that the technical difficulties that arose during the May administration of digital AP exams contributed to this decision. To provide more testing opportunities for students in the fall, the College Board has scheduled one test each month from August to December, which means one more test date is available than in a typical year; if there is enough demand for a January 2021 test date, the College Board has stated it may make that available as well. For students who are able to attend any of these fall test dates, there are strict safety guidelines in place, including a screening survey upon arrival at the testing center and requirements that students and staff wear masks and maintain six feet of distance from all other individuals.

The ACT has upped the ante in terms of quantity of test dates, offering three test dates in September and four in October, along with the usual December date. Long-gestating plans to roll out new ACT options in September 2020, such as online testing and individual section testing, have been temporarily postponed to allow for more space for rising seniors to take full tests. According to recent updates, the ACT does still plan to offer a remote proctoring option at some point during late fall or early winter, a development worth monitoring in the coming months. In terms of safety measures for test-takers, the ACT will also require students to participate in a screening prior to entering the testing center and will be implementing social distancing guidelines; unlike the SAT, the ACT will only recommend, not require, that students and staff wear masks.

Will the ACT or SAT test date I’m registered for actually happen?

Based on my years of experience with test prep, extensive research into the current state of these tests, and the input of my magic 8-ball, I’ve come to the conclusion that…

...I don’t know.

Because the fall/winter outlook for the coronavirus pandemic largely remains uncertain and

varies by location, it would be disingenuous to answer this question with certainty. But I do think we can look to some factors that provide a more optimistic answer to the question. First, an official ACT test was successfully administered on July 18th to about 88,000 students at more than 1,100 testing centers. Although an estimated 1,400 students did show up to testing centers that had been closed, a make-up date for those students was held the following Saturday.

Additionally, the College Board’s most recent update states that the August 29th test date is still expected to take place as planned, and testing centers are required to inform the College Board by August 17th if they will be choosing to close for that date. It’s worth noting that both the College Board and the ACT are still willing to administer official tests at schools that are starting the year with 100% remote learning, and the decision falls squarely

on the shoulders of the school itself.

I am advising the students I work with who are registered for fall ACT or SAT dates to continue with their test prep activities under the assumption that the test will indeed take place. If you are a student registered for a fall test, I definitely recommend extensive studying and preparation leading up to your test date; in the event that you are able to take the scheduled test, the time spent on test prep will make a huge difference.

What do I do if my test date gets cancelled or the testing center closes?

If you receive a notification that your ACT or SAT test date is cancelled or the testing center is closed, take advantage of any alternatives offered, such as a voucher that can be used for a future test date or automatic registration for the next available date. If you have been studying diligently for weeks leading up to that cancelled date, do not think of it as wasted time. Continue with your test prep plan, whether with a tutor or through self-study, and use the additional study time to sharpen your academic skills even further. If multiple test dates get cancelled and there is a widespread inability for students to take these dates, it seems likely that both organizations will make additional opportunities available. Even now, the ACT is working on alternative options to increase testing availability, such as pop-up sites in areas with many cancellations and commercial testing locations.

Is it a problem that I won’t be able to take more than one official test?

If you are a senior who hoped to take the ACT or SAT more than once this fall but could only register for one test date, my first question would be: Are you focusing solely on either the ACT or SAT? Have you considered trying to register for the other test? Since options are limited, there is value in taking both the ACT and the SAT and submitting the score that is higher relative to that test’s scoring scale. And if you’re confused by the drastically different scoring scales of each test when deciding which to submit: congratulations, you’re a sane person. Fortunately, the College Board has shared a concordance table to easily compare ACT scores to SAT scores. If you are still only able to take one test overall before submitting your college applications, don’t worry, just make that one test count. Use the time you have now to really brush up on the English and math content that is on the test you’ll be taking. Take full length practice tests (official, if possible) timed and in one sitting to work on your time management and testing stamina. I may be biased, but I really think the best bet to be fully prepared for that one test is to work 1-on-1 with one of our Strive to Learn test prep tutors.

What if my only official score is from February or earlier, and I know I could score higher now, but all the test dates are full in my area?

Many of the rising seniors we work with at Strive to Learn have been forced to register for tests in different counties and even to cross state lines to test in Arizona. While I would not feel comfortable recommending that option to anyone, it is an option nonetheless. Assuming that will not work for you, the next factor to consider would be whether the colleges you are planning to apply to require test scores to be admitted. As covered at length in a previous post, more schools than ever have decided to make the ACT or SAT optional for next year. If you’re debating whether to send your old score to

the test optional colleges, refer to the above

post for guidance.

If you are a senior who planned to take your first test in March, now facing the possibility that you might not be able to get in for a test date at all: Don’t worry, you still have ways to put your best foot forward through your college applications. As in the case of the student who doesn’t want to submit a low test score, there are many, many schools that don’t require test scores for next year (including all Cal States, which won’t even consider them). I would also recommend taking advantage of either the Additional Information or COVID-19 prompt on the Common App and the Additional Comments section on the UC application to explain that you were planning to take the SAT or ACT in the spring or summer of this year, but the test dates you registered for were repeatedly cancelled. These prompts are designed for applicants to provide more context on academic performance and personal considerations; and honestly, if you just typed “2020” into the text box for your response, no one could really blame you (PS: don’t do that). It’s very likely that colleges and universities will account for the limited access to official test dates this year when evaluating applicants across the board.

I’m a senior and the only test date I could successfully register for is in December. Is that too late for colleges to accept my ACT or SAT score?

The December test date is not generally recommended for seniors, but scores from that date can still be used for most regular decision applications. Even for the UC application, which has a hard deadline of November 30th, students can submit the application before the deadline, then self-report scores from the December date, and finally send the official score report to one UC campus as soon as possible (you only need to send it to one campus for it to be distributed to all campuses you applied to). The good news for any student in this particular pickle is that you can make changes to your application after it has been submitted; for example, if you indicate on your application that you do not want to report your test scores, then take the December ACT and get an awesome score, you can change your UC application to say that you do want to report your ACT score, while adding that shiny new score to your record. If you bomb the December test and decide you don’t want to send the score, you can still go in and change your application to test optional after 11/30. This is the key date to know: January 1st. That’s the last date that you can make changes to the “Test Scores” tab on the UC app to be confident that the changes will be considered in your application review. One last reminder for those adding test scores in December: definitely don’t forget to send the official score report to one of the UC campuses you applied to. It’s not enough to change the self-reported scores on the online application; they also need the official report. A general note for those applying to UC schools: Make sure to check back often on the admissions page of the specific campuses you're applying to because the testing policies are slightly different for each campus and are subject to updates in the coming weeks.

I’m a junior and want to get started as soon as possible on testing, but I wasn’t able to register for any fall dates. Is that bad?

During junior year, there are basically two rounds of test dates students can take: three or four dates in the fall and three or four dates in the spring. I generally think that fall of junior year is an excellent time for a student to take a first official test, with the expectation of taking another official test in the spring to work in improving that first score. This year, securing a seat for a fall date is more difficult for juniors, but I don’t think this is cause for alarm. The December test dates this year are likely to be more accessible to juniors than the earlier fall dates, and there are three SAT and three ACT dates in the spring, with another ACT in July 2021. There are plenty of opportunities available to juniors who are not able to take an initial test this fall. One small consideration I would raise to rising juniors: in its last news update, the ACT shared that although it is making attempts to prioritize opportunities for seniors to make sure they get to take at least one official test, the technology to allow those seniors to register before other classes is not available. In light of this, think about waiting to register for your first official test until December at the earliest, and maybe even until spring. Your choice may not make a difference in the end, but it might end up providing a seat for just one more senior to take an ACT or SAT that would help that person get into their dream school- wouldn’t that be worth it?

What do I do in the meantime?

Since it is likely juniors will need to wait a little longer than usual to take a first official ACT or SAT, my primary recommendation is to use the “extra” time to study extensively and make the most of learning opportunities. First, focus on what you can gain from your school work that will contribute to your testing readiness. Take advantage of your 11th grade math and English classes to sharpen your skills. If you really want to make sure you’re prepared for the rigor and breadth of the ACT or SAT, revisit your math notes from 8th-10th grade (which most of the math content on these tests is taken from) and practice active reading skills with books or articles on topics you find intriguing. In addition to maximizing the value of your math and English coursework, this is a great time to begin with directed test prep. Review the math and grammar concepts that are covered on the tests and begin taking full practice tests, timed and in one sitting to simulate real testing conditions as much as possible. Although it’s best to reserve the most intensive studying for the 8-10 weeks leading up to an official test date, you can still get started now with a steady plan of studying one or two hours per week.

There is no denying that the current state of ACT/SAT testing in the COVID-19 era is a mess that has been thrust on students and their families this year. Fortunately, there are many individuals out there who are currently working hard to ensure that all applications for Fall 2021 admissions will be considered fairly. The National Association of College Admissions Counseling recently drafted a statement to hold colleges and universities accountable for how they assess applicants who don’t submit test scores. The statement includes this quote, followed by a list of admissions officers from schools who have signed it: The following colleges with test-optional policies in place affirm that they will not penalize students for the absence of a standardized test score. Together, we strongly endorse a student-centered, holistic approach to admission that will not disadvantage any student without a test score.” The statement currently features 500 institutions committing to uphold this policy.

As we move forward into an uncertain autumn, it is very possible that there will be more hiccups with the ACT and SAT. I can’t guarantee that everything will be smooth sailing from now on. But I do know what college admissions officers want today’s college applicants to focus on, because they told us. The #1 factor these 300+ college admissions deans value in students is self-care. In their own words: “We also recognize that this time is stressful and demanding for a wide range of students for many different reasons. We encourage all students to be gentle with themselves during this time.” As you consider your testing and college planning situation in the coming months, keep this encouragement in mind.


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