Over the last several weeks, I have been flooded by questions from parents and students about the implications of universities going test-optional for the class of 2021. While many universities have adopted a test-optional policy, most merit scholarships continue to take into account a student’s SAT or ACT score. As a result, it may still be in a student’s best interest to make the effort to prepare for the SAT or ACT if extra financial aid based on merit will be needed.
The new test-optional policy appears to be in favor of all students (both great and not-so-great test-takers). If a student is able to take the SAT or ACT and does well, that student can submit his or her scores to improve eligibility and also to potentially qualify for additional merit aid. In contrast, if a student takes the SAT or ACT and does not do well, then he or she can opt to withhold that score during the admissions process.
With the new test-optional policies in place at many universities, students who have had the opportunity to take the SAT or ACT will have to decide whether to submit those scores with their applications. A good starting point will be to look at the “Admitted Class Profile” for each university that the student is considering. If a student’s SAT or ACT scores are at or above the 50th percentile for that university, then it would be wise to submit the scores. However, if a student finds that his or her scores are below the 50th percentile of admitted applicants, he or she may want to consider withholding those scores during the application process (especially important for students who have great GPAs). You can view UF's admitted class profile for the class of 2023 here. Note that admissions to in-state universities will most likely become more competitive for the upcoming admissions cycle, but I will dive deeper into that in another post. Submitting an SAT or ACT score can also strengthen applications for students who have poor or average GPAs but great standardized test scores.
Understanding Testing Policies
It is also critical to note that test-optional is not the same as test-blind. Test-optional universities do factor in a student’s SAT or ACT score if the student chooses to submit it. Because universities are still required to report their admitted class’ SAT and ACT scores, they are more inclined to admit students who reported great scores or who chose not to report a score. In contrast, if a student applies to a test-blind university, the university will not consider the SAT or ACT score at all. Therefore, a test score will neither help nor hinder a student’s application to a test-blind institution. FairTest provides an accurate and updated list of universities' testing policies.
As I mentioned earlier, SAT or ACT scores are often required in order for a student to qualify for merit-based scholarships. Bright Futures has requirements for a student’s GPA, SAT/ACT score, and community service hours. Intended to keep high achieving students in-state, Bright Futures has enabled many students to go to college for little to no cost even when their families do not qualify for need-based aid. Bright Futures has also enabled students from low income families to pursue college educations. As of right now, we are still waiting to hear from Bright Futures to see if they will make accommodations or adjustments to their requirements for the class of 2021. Unfortunately, the current Bright Futures requirements recently changed and are already more difficult to achieve for those graduating in 2021 and beyond.
SAT and ACT Accessibility and Credibility
The SAT canceled its spring and summer testing opportunities, and the next SAT will not be offered until August 29th. In contrast, the ACT only canceled its April test date and will be offering more flexible testing opportunities throughout the summer. Currently, the College Board and ACT are planning on offering in-person testing, but they have both announced that they are actively developing virtual at-home testing alternatives for the fall in case students cannot safely return to the classroom. AP tests this May will already be held online in students’ homes, and it remains to be seen how that will pan out. I am sure lessons will be learned that will improve the experience for future at-home testing. The College Board recently reassured students that they are “adjusting the number of points needed to earn a 3, 4, or 5 so that [students will] have the same chance of earning college credit as [they] would’ve had on the in-school exam.” According to the College Board, universities across the country have also “committed to giving credit for this year’s AP exam scores.” There has been much discussion about the possibility of cheating, but the College Board has remained confident that their protocols, including “identity verification” and “plagiarism detection,” will “prevent and detect cheating.” Based on the current response from universities to at-home AP testing, I suspect that they will similarly honor at-home SAT or ACT testing if those come to fruition.
Choosing When to Take the SAT or ACT
Even though it is possible that the summer ACT testing will also be postponed, I do feel that it would be beneficial for high school juniors to consider signing up for the June or July ACT. There is a possibility that it may be their last chance for an in-person testing experience before they apply to college. Registration closes on May 8th for the June 13th ACT. Starting this fall, students will also be able to retake one ACT section at a time. This will be a game changer for students who need to super score. Bright Futures does super score both the SAT and ACT by taking the average of the best scores from each testing date. Some students certainly are more suited to the SAT versus the ACT, so it is important to make this determination on a case by case basis. If students choose to wait until the fall to take the SAT, I do recommend that they start to prepare early so that they have time to master the material before test day. I am offering several courses that utilize real tests from the ACT and College Board in order to prepare students for the June or July ACT as well as for the August SAT. Registration is already live for my courses, and the College Board has announced that students will be able to register in May for fall SAT testing. The College Board will be giving juniors who don’t already have SAT scores early access to registration and have also significantly expanded their capacity for fall SATs. I hope that my courses will also increase accessibility to test prep for students as I am limited in the number of individual clients I can take on during each testing season. Khan Academy and the ACT Academy are also free excellent resources that self-motivated students can utilize. Regardless of which route a student chooses to take, I always recommend using real practice tests from the ACT and College Board instead of material from third parties.
For high school seniors that still need an SAT or ACT score in order to qualify for Bright Futures, it will be important for them to take the ACT this June. There are already petitions that have been started demanding that the SAT also add more summer test options or offer virtual SAT testing opportunities this summer. High school seniors can take the SAT or ACT up until June 30th of their graduation year in order to qualify for Bright Futures. As the ACT is the only test that will be offered this summer, I would advise seniors to sign up for the ACT as soon as possible if they need to improve their standardized test scores for scholarships or admissions.
I recognize that many families of younger students, including freshman and sophomores, feel similarly overwhelmed by the changes in testing. If summer activities are canceled for your student, it would be a great time to get ahead and prepare them for future testing. Students can take a free practice test from the College Board or ACT and then compare scores using a concordance table to help them determine which test might be a better fit. It is important to take both tests under timed conditions in order to ensure a fair comparison. Also take into account your student's preference. The test prep experience will be more enjoyable for all if the student feels that he or she has a say.
The personal statement and other parts of a student’s application will become even more important as we see changes in SAT and ACT testing as well as more schools shifting to test-optional policies. While I do absolutely recommend that students continue to take SAT and ACT preparation seriously as great scores can significantly improve admissions and scholarship eligibility, I believe that students will also need to be extremely mindful of how they are presenting themselves when writing their personal statements and filling out applications. I am offering a free Personal Statement and Applications Workshop in partnership with the Safety Harbor Public Library on June 2nd. You can register for that here.