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Do the ACT or SAT Have a Future in College Admission?

Do standardized tests have a future in college admission? Learn why many schools are shifting away from this requirement and what they'll look for instead.

The college admission process has faced plenty of challenges in the face of the pandemic—especially when it comes to requiring students to take standardized tests. In fact, many private and public institutions have either paused or removed standardized test score requirements altogether. The decades-old practice of standardized testing has also fallen under some criticism as an inequitable admissions factor due to the fact that research shows an SAT-only system favors affluent White students who are exposed to a different curriculum and have access to supplemental test resources like private tutors. Whether you’re for or against the pause on standardized testing requirements, prospective college students and their parents are bound to encounter the policy changes while applying to schools. Here’s what you need to know. 

What standardized test scores mean to you

Although some of the nation’s top schools modified their standardized testing requirements to meet the challenges students face today, it’s important to know not all institutions have and not all changes are the same. For example, Princeton University implemented a test-optional policy for freshman and transfer applicants for just the 2021–2022 application cycle, while Pennsylvania State University announced a test-optional policy for first-year students through fall 2023. Then there’s Florida’s public university system, which still requires SAT or ACT scores for admission consideration. The University of California system, on the other hand, agreed on a landmark settlement that extends test-free admissions through at least 2025.  

Students who sat for the SAT or ACT and are applying to test-optional schools can choose to submit their scores with their application, if desired. Those who don’t submit test scores will have their applications undergo a holistic review based on factors like the difficulty of completed coursework, high school GPA, letters of recommendation, and extracurricular activities.  

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The potential long-term impact of test-optional policies

The SAT and ACT demand significant resources to prepare for the test, including time spent studying and sitting for the exam and money toward tutors, prep courses, books, and exam fees. If you’re applying to test-optional or test-blind colleges, the relaxed testing requirements give you more leeway to be strategic about how you spend your time and money. For example, students can instead focus on volunteer work, which is a factor that often makes you a more competitive applicant for grants and scholarship opportunities. More grant and scholarship aid also means fewer student loans and less debt after graduation.

The shift away from standardized test scores in college admission isn’t permanent yet. But as more data is released about acceptance and college success rates of students admitted during test-optional or test-free application cycles, the relevancy of standardized test scores will likely come into question again.  

Making your college applications stand out without test scores

If you apply to schools that don’t consider SAT or ACT scores, you’ll need to flaunt other areas of your application. Below are a few ways for incoming college applicants to stand out without submitting standardized test scores. 

Take challenging courses during your junior and senior years

Admission officers want to see that first-time applicants can take on the rigor of college coursework and can manage challenging classes. With most of your core high school courses completed by junior year, it’s tempting to jump at the chance for a free period or to enroll in an easy or no-credit class. Demonstrate your readiness for rigorous schoolwork by taking a full schedule of classes and selecting courses that are relevant to the college program you’re interested in. In doing so, be mindful of maintaining a strong GPA.  

Write a captivating personal essay

Without standardized test scores to potentially boost your college application, your personal essay now has more influence than it might’ve had in previous years. You need to convey a memorable story that speaks to your grit and reflect on how it impacted you. Before submitting your essay, have a trusted teacher or counselor read it for spelling and grammar issues and to provide feedback. 

Related: 5 Tips for Writing a Strong Personal Statement

Lead initiatives and projects

Although school-sponsored extracurriculars are positive additions to your application, passion projects aren’t confined to the classroom. Taking initiative within your community is another way to show your leadership prowess. Whether it’s developing your own app or coordinating a charity event for a local nonprofit, these self-led opportunities can be a positive mark on your college applications.

Ensure social media platforms reflect your best self

Your social media accounts are an extension of yourself. According to a 2020 survey by Kaplan, 36% of admission officers admitted to checking students’ social media, including platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok. Of those who checked applicants’ accounts, 42% said their findings had a positive impact, while 58% said the content didn’t bode well for the student. Use your social media accounts to give admission officers an idea of how you’d positively contribute to their campus, like focusing on achievements and hobbies, and always be selective with what you share online publicly.  

Related: How to Establish a Professional Online Presence

With the hardships college applicants face in sitting for the SAT or ACT and the growing sentiment that standardized tests unfairly favor the wealthy, the fate of testing requirements is precarious. Capitalizing on other college admission criteria, like the areas listed above, can help your applications stand out without them.    

For more information and insight on how the pandemic has changed college admission, check out our COVID-19 student resources page.

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