Part III: What to do
This is the third article in a three-part series focusing on colleges’ test-optional policies during COVID-19. You can find the first and second articles on our website, which provide definitions and background on these policies and in which we argue that colleges should have instead implemented test-blind policies this year. Now, we share our responses to some of the most commonly asked questions by rising seniors this year, reflecting on how students and their families may want to consider these issues as they plan for the fall admissions cycle.
How important is it for me to try to take the SAT/ACT this year?
We think that the main reasons a student may consider taking a test this year are that: 1) one or more of the colleges on your list will consider the scores (e.g., aren’t test blind), and 2) you think that your grades don’t reflect your potential and/or one or more of the colleges on your list still seems to value test scores, despite the fact that we are in a pandemic.
If you are planning to apply only to colleges that have adopted test-blind policies, such as Reed College which will therefore not consider your scores anyway, then you can definitely skip the test. Most other colleges are test optional, such as all campuses of the University of California, which state that they will consider scores but will not penalize students without scores.
So, why take the test? If you attend a high school that is particularly rigorous, where even top students have difficulty earning high grades, achieving high test scores can provide additional evidence that your education was solid and that you have high academic potential. In addition, if you had personal struggles in high school that negatively impacted your grades or were unable to take spring classes for a grade, strong test scores can provide further evidence of your academic potential. However, there are other ways to show academic strength, and college admissions offices are developing alternative ways to review applications, placing greater emphasis on other parts of the application.
They will look closely at your class rigor, grades, activities, honors and awards, letters of recommendation, interviews, other test scores (e.g., SAT Subject Tests taken in previous years or AP tests), and your demonstrated interest in that college. They may also scrutinize the rigor of the high school itself based on the school profile, which is a document that each high school prepares that has detailed information about classes, test scores among seniors, and college matriculation.
Ultimately, colleges are trying to build well-rounded classes of qualified students that include band members, athletes, future scientists, future artists, introverts, extroverts, and so on, and test scores are only one part of the picture. Because you have no control over each college’s selection process nor whether you will be able to take the SAT or ACT this year, the best way to prepare for your college applications is to build a solid list of likely, match, and reach colleges that you love and do your very best on those applications.
That said, a small minority of very selective colleges have written their test-optional policies in a way that suggests that they still value test scores, which we described in our second article in this series. If you are very interested in a college that still encourages students to report test scores, then achieving a high test score may give you an advantage in the admissions process over peers who are unable to take the test. However, because a lot of students are unlikely to have scores to report, even colleges that seem to value test scores during COVID-19 will have to admit many students who don’t have scores. So, if you apply to those colleges and do your very best on the other parts of the applications, it may still work out for you.
A final word on this subject: As a prospective applicant, it is important to remember that creating your college list is all about finding the right match—both for you and for your college. Therefore, as you evaluate the many aspects of a college that matter to you, you may also want to consider whether the college seems to prioritize the health and wellbeing of its faculty, staff, students and prospective applicants during the pandemic.
One way to do that is to examine the language on the admissions website. Is the language supportive and does it make it clear that you will not be penalized for not having an SAT or ACT score, regardless of circumstances? Each college should assume that you are the best judge of whether it makes sense (or not) for you to take the test. You can also look at the information the college is sending its own faculty, staff and students. Is the information timely and comprehensive? Does it show concern for the members of the college “family”? What are enrolled students and their parents saying on social media about the college’s responses? An institution’s responses during challenging times may be a good indicator of its character.
I am concerned about my risk of catching COVID-19 when I am taking the SAT/ACT this fall, if the test even happens. Is it reasonable not to try to take the test?
We believe that it is absolutely reasonable not to try to take the test. Even with social distancing, the SAT and ACT will put you in a room for many hours with people who do not live in your home. Students with accommodations that include additional time on tests will be exposed to others for even longer. The ACT, which has administered tests on two test dates this summer, recommends—but does not require—test takers to wear masks. You will want to consider your own health and the health of family members you live with or frequently visit to gauge whether the risk of taking the test is worth it. Most colleges state that students will not be penalized in any way for not submitting SAT/ACT test scores. Even without test scores, colleges have a lot of other information about applicants that they can evaluate to make an informed admissions decision.
Should I keep studying for the SAT/ACT, given that there is a real possibility that the test I signed up for will be cancelled?
It is possible, even likely, that many more SAT/ACT cancellations will occur this fall. Even if your area is doing reasonably well with regard to COVID-19 infections, the testing companies or the high schools that host the tests may decide that the potential risks to students and proctors aren’t worth the potential benefits. Your question is really getting at whether there is an opportunity cost for preparing for a test that is unlikely to happen. The answer is yes. Ultimately, what you do have control over is where to invest your time. It is reasonable to put the time, energy and money into preparing for a test, if you believe that is in your best interest, but it is also reasonable to decide that the pressure, uncertainty and potential risks of the test just aren’t worth it this year.
I took the SAT/ACT once last fall, but my scores weren’t as strong as I had hoped they would be. Should I report them?
This year, only students who were able to take the test and achieve high scores would be advised to report their scores. How do you define “high” score? This depends on the average test scores of students who were admitted in previous years to each college on your list. If your scores were at least in the upper 50% for admitted students to a given college on your list—but preferably in the top 40% of scores or higher—then we recommend that you report the scores. Otherwise, you are probably better off not reporting them, unless you absolutely need them for some other reason, such as merit scholarships.
If I am interested in being considered for merit scholarships, must I submit test scores with my application?
Under normal circumstances, most colleges that offer merit scholarships and that require test scores for admission also require test scores to be considered for merit scholarships. This year is not normal, however. Colleges like Tulane University that offer merit scholarships and that have temporarily adopted test-optional policies are generally saying that applicants without test scores will still be considered for merit scholarships. You will want to regularly check the websites for the colleges on your list to learn about their merit scholarship policies and any updates to those policies.
What else can I do to strengthen my application if I can’t take the SAT/ACT this year?
Colleges that review applications “holistically” evaluate many different pieces of information from students. They are using all parts of your application to try to understand you as a three-dimensional person, including your personal qualities, your academic qualifications, and whether you are a good fit for their campus community.
With that in mind, here are some great ways to strengthen your application: