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How Colleges Becoming Test-Optional Due to Coronavirus Will Affect You

Two pencils resting on top of a completed scantron form.

It was no April Fool’s Day joke. On April 1, the University of California announced that it would be “relaxing” the standardized testing requirements for all students applying in the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, due to the widespread test cancellations caused by COVID-19.

While the University of California may have made the biggest splash in the application landscape, it was not the first to make such a policy shift. In recent weeks, more than a dozen colleges and universities in the United States have stated that they will be effectively “test-optional” for applicants in the high school Class of 2021 (and, in some cases, beyond). You can see a complete and updated list of those schools here.

Some universities, like Case Western Reserve and Boston University, plan to make this change just for one year. Others, like Tufts University and Davidson College, are implementing a three-year test-optional pilot program. And still others, such as the University of Oregon, have dropped their standardized testing requirement permanently.

Given the prominent role SAT scores play in college admissions, these changes have radically altered the landscape for the high school Class of 2021. What does that mean for you?

What Does “Test Optional” Really Mean?

First things first: so far, plenty of colleges and universities are, as of now, still requiring applicants to submit an SAT or ACT score. It’s very likely that more will join the ranks of the temporarily test-optional as additional test dates are cancelled, but for now, juniors should still sign up for available test dates over the summer. Even if every school were to drop its testing requirement, a good score would still be an asset to your application.

Second, if you have a great test score already, don’t despair! Test-optional schools are exactly that: optional. That means you won’t be penalized if you don’t submit scores, but if you do, they will be considered along with the rest of your profile.

Of course, even test-optional schools get thousands of applications, and they need to admit only a fraction of them—with or without the SAT. That means they have to pay even closer attention to the rest of your application: your grades, your resume, and your essays. In other words, if you cannot submit test scores or choose not to do so, you definitely want to make sure that the rest of your application materials are as strong as they can possibly be!

What Will Schools Use Instead?

In fact, you probably already knew that there’s plenty more that goes into college admissions than standardized tests. After all, the SAT is not a college entrance exam of the sort that exists for some private schools or universities in other countries. Rather, the SAT and ACT are simply one factor that American universities use in their holistic evaluation of prospective students.

So, what does that mean for you? Based on trends at schools that were test-optional even before the onset of COVID-19, here’s what you can expect if you opt not to submit an SAT score:

Grades

Your grades will take on new importance without a standardized test score because they’ll be the primary factor on which admissions committees can evaluate your academic performance. Without an SAT or ACT score to calibrate, they’ll look almost exclusively at your GPA for their statistical analyses.

Of course, the pandemic has thrown grading into disarray as well, with many schools moving to Pass/Fail grades for the rest of this year. While admissions officers will work with what they have, this complication adds another layer of uncertainty to their evaluation. Nevertheless, if you are still earning letter grades at this time, you should strive to perform as well as you possibly can in your junior-year courses.

Resume

Given how much academic performance metrics will be in flux next year, colleges are going to turn to your resume to get a sense of how prepared you are for college life, both academically and socially. What kinds of academic enrichment have you sought outside the classroom? Beyond school, have you started to explore what you might want to study?

Similarly, colleges will care as much or more about how you’re going to fit into their student body. What are your passions? Is it clear how you’ll be involved on campus? More than ever, having a clear and coherent personal narrative will be imperative for a strong application.

Essays

In any year, your writing is a crucial part of your application. It’s where college admissions officers truly get to know you and what you’re about. Both your personal statement (a.k.a. the Common App Essay) and your school-specific supplementary essays provide admissions readers their best opportunity to understand what makes you a strong and unique candidate.

With standardized tests on hold—along with disruptions in classes and activities—these essays will be of prime importance for applicants in 2020-2021. Without their usual metrics, colleges and universities will rely more than ever on your ability to show them in your essays why you’re the best fit for their school.

Other Changes You Should Know About

In addition to schools dropping their SAT or ACT requirements, there are a few additional changes to the standardized testing landscape you should be aware of:

SAT Subject Tests

On March 20, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that it would no longer consider SAT Subject Tests as part of the admissions process. In doing so, it moved the number of colleges that explicitly require subject tests to zero.

Since then, the obvious limitations on standardized testing have caused some universities who still “recommend” the subject tests to soften their language. For example, both Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania recently announced that these tests are now fully optional and that not submitting them will not disadvantage an applicant.

AP Exams

With school closures in the United States likely to last through the remainder of the school year, the College Board (who oversees advanced placement courses and exams) made an unprecedented announcement: AP exams would go forward, but they would be heavily modified and students would complete each 45-minute exam online at home. You can find more details about the 2020 exam schedule and the revised content for this year’s exams here.

Given that this is the first time that standardized testing at home has ever been attempted on a mass scale, there may prove to be issues with submitting, scoring, and/or reporting these exams, and you can bet colleges will be paying close attention to any problems that arise. Nevertheless, students should do their best to prepare as normal!

Final Thoughts

While colleges dropping standardized testing requirements for just one year is highly unusual, the general trend away from the SAT and ACT is nothing new. Indeed, these changes come on the heels of a year (2019) in which more American colleges and universities than ever dropped their testing requirements, according to the advocacy group Fair Test. And it remains to be seen whether schools that have dropped the test for just one year will reinstate the requirement or continue on as fully test-optional schools.

In the meantime, however, it’s important to be aware of these changes as you make your college list and prepare your applications. For a growing number of schools, your application won’t be about a single numerical score: it’ll be much more about who you are and what matters to you. In these troubled times, perhaps that’s a silver lining.

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