#College Essays and Applications

Before COVID-19, there were already more than 1,000 colleges and universities that were test-optional. But with so many institutions changing their standardized test policies – some temporarily, others permanently – in light of the pandemic, there are more questions about what “test-optional” means than ever before.

To be brief, if your student has the access and ability to take the SAT or ACT, the expectation will be that you take the test. Your student’s plan should be to treat testing the same way now as they would have before the pandemic. For many students, the option to test remotely at home this fall means that they will be able to test regardless of the public health situation. Students with access to the required technology will be expected to make use of that option.

Here are some essential insights you need to understand test-optional so you can best form a plan around testing for your student and approach the college application process.

1. Test-optional DOES NOT mean tests do not matter.

Before the pandemic: Standardized tests were considered by consensus the second most important factor in admissions (behind only academic grades/rigor). The general rule of thumb was that the only students who benefitted from omitting their SAT or ACT were those whose scores were lower than the college’s median 25th-75th percentile range, and whose grades were far superior. (Extracurricular activities, recommendation letters, and application essays were also evaluated more heavily.) 

With the pandemic: There are many misleading headlines about colleges getting rid of or eliminating standardized tests. Getting rid of and eliminating the requirement, yes, but a strong score will still be an asset for admissions, merit scholarships, and honors colleges. And now that the SAT and ACT have assured students that they will have the opportunity to test in the fall – even if that means at home – that would strongly indicate the old logic surrounding test-optional will overwhelmingly still be relevant. 

2. If their SAT or ACT score is in or above a college’s median range, students should submit.

Before the pandemic: Admissions officers are people. People accept other people. Omitting the SAT or ACT in years past would only indicate one thing: the score was below the median range. So if the score was ‘competitive’ (notice we did not say ‘superior’) then it would be submitted. Especially because to qualify for consideration for many colleges’ merit scholarships, honors programs, accelerated/dual-degree programs, and limited access majors, SAT and ACT scores were still required. 

With the pandemic: Again, now that the SAT and ACT have assured access to testing in the fall, whether it is in-person or online, the old logic still holds true. So proceed as you were already planning. If students were planning to retake a test to increase their score, there is no reason to abandon that plan. If they have not taken a test yet at all, make a new plan and timeframe for studying and preparing.

3. Merit scholarships often require SAT/ACT scores.

Before the pandemic: Many colleges that were already test-optional or test-flexible still required SAT/ACT scores for certain merit-based scholarships.

With the pandemic: Colleges have not yet clarified how their policies surrounding test scores and merit aid may evolve, so caution dictates that students targeting merit scholarships still plan to test, as that will give them the best chances.

4. Grades and qualitative factors (activities, recommendations, and essays) will matter more.

Before the pandemic: On top of these factors having greater importance, if a student chose to omit the SAT or ACT, they could have been asked by colleges to submit a graded paper from school, an independent research project they had done, or an additional application essay. In other words, other facets of the application would be needed to distinguish a student even more than a student who was submitting an SAT or ACT. 

With the pandemic: The above remains true, but with major caveats regarding grades and activities especially. Many high schools are going pass/fail or instituting policies that may lead to mass grade inflation for the period from March through the end of the year, which means that colleges will place greater emphasis on grades from other semesters. When it comes to extracurricular activities, we will publish a more detailed post later this week. 

5. Students who submit scores are admitted at higher rates than those who do not.

Before the pandemic: Colleges’ decisions to adopt test-optional policies increased the number of applicants as well as diversity of the student body. The majority of those who did not submit scores were first-generation, underrepresented minorities, and low-income students. Selectivity increased overall that these colleges, and those who did not submit an SAT or ACT were accepted about 10% less of the time than their test-submitting peers. 

With the pandemic: Similar trends are likely to prevail, unless there are major issues with the test administrations in the fall that would force colleges to adopt policies that go a step further than test-optional. 

6. NCAA D1 and D2 have different rules.

Before the pandemic: Athletes were unable to apply test-optional because the NCAA required test scores for eligibility.

With the pandemic: NCAA college athletes graduating from college in the spring or summer of 2020 (current seniors) do not need to submit test scores for NCAA eligibility. No word on policy changes for future years (including current juniors), so athletes will be safest assuming that they do have to submit scores for the foreseeable future.

Bonus Insight: Registering early will be essential.

Before the pandemic. Registration for the next year’s tests generally opened in June for the SAT and July for the ACT. Even a few days before each test date’s registration deadline, there was a possibility students could still get a seat at their test venue of choice, or at least one in close proximity to their home.

After the pandemic: More rising seniors will test in the fall than in typical years, since so many juniors missed spring testing, which will lead to increased demand for seats at test centers. College Board has announced it will open registration the week of May 26 for rising seniors who missed a canceled spring test or who have not received a score yet. ACT has not said as much, but we hope they will follow suit, especially if there are cancellations in June and July. We can hope that there will be more seats available for the fall SATs and ACTs, but hope is not a strategy. Registering early is.