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Admissions Testing

Updated 5/28/2024

For many students, standardized testing is the bane of college admissions. Why, students wonder, do colleges care so much about their performance on one or two Saturday mornings when they have three and a half year’s worth of high school achievement to evaluate?

One reason was examined in the article on Grades, GPA, and Class Rank – namely that it’s impossible to directly compare the GPAs and grades of students from different high schools. Formulas for calculating GPAs differ, and a B in Spanish from the teacher known to his students as El Exigente may represent a much greater accomplishment than an A from another high school’s Señora Smiley.  However, since everyone takes the SAT and ACT under standardized conditions, all applicants can be evaluated by the same metric.

With So Many Colleges Going Test Optional, Do They Even Matter?

Prior to the pandemic, many colleges were already experimenting with test optional policies, though the overwhelming majority of highly competitive colleges continued to require them. However, with the Covid lockdown that began in March, 2020 making it difficult or impossible for some students to take a standardized test, the majority of colleges embraced test optional policies, including the most elite schools. Some colleges went even further to become test blind. Now that students are again reliably able to take standardized tests, some colleges have reinstated a requirement for some sort of testing. According to an April 11th, 2024 article in the New York Times, Harvard and Caltech have recently joined Brown, Yale, Dartmouth, M.I.T, Georgetown, Purdue and U.T. Austin in moving to once again require standardized testing. One reason for the reversal of test optional policies is research indicating that SAT scores are a strong predictor of which students will succeed in a rigorous college environment - and a means for colleges to identify promising students from less privileged backgrounds (March 18 Washington Post article). The testing landscape is continually evolving, so students need to carefully check the policies at each college to which they are considering applying. 

What does this mean for students, particularly those applying to colleges with low acceptance rates? By way of answering this question, let's begin with an important distinction; test optional versus test blind. Schools that are test blind (examples are the University of California schools) will not consider an applicant's test scores for admission decisions, so if you were only applying to those schools, your test scores would have no impact on your admission. Test optional colleges, on the other hand, don't require you to submit scores, but will consider your scores if you submit them. In this case, if you submitted an SAT score of 1550 or an ACT score of 36, it seems likely that such a score would be viewed as an asset.

So, does submitting a score improve a student's chances of being accepted? There's no simple or uniform answer to this question. For any individual student, it comes down to a holistic assessment of whether that student's application appears stronger or weaker with the inclusion of his/her scores.  and general data from colleges about the potential advantage of submitting a test score is hard to find. 

Test Tips

PSAT : Not Just a Practice Test. The PSAT is often the first college admissions test that students encounter. It’s similar to the SAT, but a little less difficult. Students can take it in 10th (and even 9th ) grade for practice, but only the score from junior year counts as the qualifying score for the National Merit Scholarship Competition, which awards scholarships to top scorers. Unlike the SAT, students need to sign up (and may need to pay) for the PSAT through the school counseling office at their high school, not the College Board website.  Some schools register and pay for all juniors, but many don’t, so have your daughter check the policy in her school. The test is given in mid-October, so registration is early. 

ACT : Try it, You Might Like It.  The vast majority of colleges will accept the SAT or ACT, with no preference. The ACT is comprised of four tests: English, Reading, Math, and Science, each of which is scored from 1 to 36. The composite score (which is the score colleges tend to focus on), is simply the average of the four section scores.  Before taking the ACT, be sure to review the test format, especially the science section. While the English, Reading, and Math tests cover similar material to what's covered on the SAT, the science section is unique. Furthermore, many students find that it's a unique, challenging, time-pressured section - not the kind of test you'd want to see for the first time on test day. You can take a free practice test at act.org, though you need to create an ACT account to do so.

Bottom line: some kids do a lot better on the ACT than the SAT and others just like it better, so why not give it a try? 

For Test Prep Materials, Go to the Source: 

There’s a lot more information about these tests on the websites of their creators - including possible test dates, free prep material and practice tests. For the PSAT, SAT (and Advanced Placement tests), visit  http://www.collegeboard.org. For the ACT, click here. Introduce yourself – and your son or daughter- to these sites early. They both contain a lot of useful information on testing and college planning.

In addition, there's a lot more in-depth information on Planning and Preparing for testing right here on The Sidelines, so keep reading.

Next article:   Planning for Testing


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