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Test-Optional College Admissions: What Are They and How to Approach

Test-Optional College Admissions: What Are They and How to Approach

Here's everything you need to know about test-optional college admissions.

Widespread changes across the college admissions process certainly show the continuing impact of COVID-19 on the world of higher education. These changes, like SAT tests being cancelled and colleges choosing to forgo SAT scores as part of the application, leave a number of questions unanswered for teens who are preparing to apply to college. Should your student still prepare for and take the SAT or ACT standardized exams? How might new changes impact test preparation strategies? How should your child approach applying to college if standardized tests aren’t weighed as heavily or are optional?

What’s changed with the SAT because of COVID?

First, let’s break down some of these most recent changes. The College Board has announced that it will no longer offer SAT Subject Tests to U.S. students, and will discontinue the optional SAT Essay after the slated June 2021 test date. In an effort to soften the impact of an already stressful school year, this decision will aim to reduce the testing requirements demanded of college applicants and streamline the application process for students and colleges alike. The College Board is certainly not alone in sending shockwaves through the landscape of standardized testing. These newest shifts come on top of decisions from hundreds of colleges to temporarily make test score submissions optional, or even eliminate them altogether as an admissions requirement for applicants.

RELATED New York State Tests 101

How do I determine if I should take the SAT or the ACT?

For standardized entrance exams, like the SAT and ACT, how can you know if your student actually needs to take one of the exams this year? Have your child develop the list of colleges they want to apply to, and if at least one of those colleges requires certain tests, well, you know what your child needs to do.

Even amid this test-optional admissions climate, we typically recommend students take at least one administration of the test—if they have adequate time to develop a testing timeline and rigorously prepare for the exam. Most often, sending along more representative information of your child’s abilities as a student helps the admissions office make a better decision on whether to offer acceptance. These tests, while they should not solely define your student’s future, can be a helpful indicator of skill and readiness, which can sometimes help ensure a student will be successful in terms of the difficulty of college coursework. However, if the score you receive will not add value to your child’s application portfolio (it doesn’t fall within or exceed the average scores of a school’s applicant pool), it may not be worth sending.

What other factors are important in a college application?

As certain testing components, such as Subject Tests and SAT Essays, become obsolete, students should be aware that others will begin to take on new significance. The growing availability and popularity of subject-specific AP courses, for example, are now a key metric to demonstrate students’ mastery of certain academic disciplines, as well as rigor in their course sequencing. Plus, sections of the SAT, such as the Reading and Writing & Language portions, as well as personal statement components of the typical college application, are now used to adequately showcase students’ writing skills. It will be important, now more than ever, to more purposefully prepare for and be mindful of these portions of the college application.

However your student proceeds, sending in a holistically representative application that communicates their unique strengths and interests as a student and individual remains most important when applying to college.


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Tony Di Giacomo, Ph.D., is the founder of Novella Prep, a tutoring, college planning, and academic advising service for families in Westchester County and Fairfield County, CT. Dr. Di Giacomo has more than 15 years of experience working in admissions, development, teaching, researching, and counseling.

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