Charting the Course: College Admissions and Uncertainty

Key takeaways:

  • College admissions is as uncertain now as ever before, due to impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, societal changes, and higher education’s response to them;
  • With the SAT and ACT, it’s important to understand the difference between “test optional” and “test blind”
  • UW, to choose a popular school, remains “test optional”
  • “Test optional” basically means “test still required”
  • Even still, “holistic admissions” will be the norm until a new standardized model emerges
  • Know what the key pillars of “holistic admissions” are and how to start building them

School is almost out – and what that usually means for rising seniors who are thinking about going to college is to start focusing on the admissions process.

Of course, nothing is business as usual this year. Distance learning has been difficult. Grading policies vary by school and district. SAT and ACT tests still aren’t taking place in person, and schools across the country have announced a variety of responses to this. Colleges aren’t offering in-person tours or admissions sessions. Summer plans, from trips and vacations to jobs and volunteering, have all been impacted in one way or another.  

And now, the University of Washington, our state’s flagship public institution, has made a splash with the announcement this month that it is dropping the SAT/ACT requirement not just for the class of 2021, but indefinitely.

It’s all gotten more uncertain than ever. How to chart a course through this uncertainty?

The University of Washington, “test optional,” and should you still take it?

First, let’s parse the UW announcement.

The first thing I tell my SAT and ACT prep students is that they are not their SAT or ACT score. Their abilities, intellect, potential, and future will not be defined by their performance on one test on one day. The only thing the SAT or ACT tests is your ability to take the SAT or the ACT.

And yet it has been a near-universal requirement for college admissions forever, a rite of passage for generations of students, and that’s why part of my work has focused on preparing students to do their best on these tests. It is not a perfect system, but until a completely new model emerges, it has been the reality we’ve all been confronted with.

Now, the UW, like a number of schools, has come to agree that, in the words of their Faculty Senate chair, “students’ potential achievement over four years or more of their university education can’t be measured by the result of one test on one day.” And so they’ve done away with the requirement to submit scores.

UW’s announcement did not say whether students may still submit SAT/ACT scores to be considered as an optional part of their application, or whether such scores simply won’t factor into consideration at all.

This is the distinction between “test optional” and “test blind” and it is important for the college-bound to understand.

So, I reached out and asked. The school did confirm that students may continue to submit SAT and ACT scores and that higher scores may aid an application. They also added that in their holistic admissions review (more on that in a moment), course rigor and performance will be key criteria. But, in other words, they remain a “test optional” school, like the majority of colleges that have made similar announcements.

So, what does that mean, practically?

For selective college admissions, and UW is selective with an under-50 percent acceptance rate, in my opinion, “test optional” still means it’s a very good idea to strive for and submit strong scores. Although such colleges, UW included, routinely state that no student will be disadvantaged from not submitting test scores, students who confirm their transcript and recommendations with a strong SAT or ACT score will only enhance their chances for admission.

Whether it is UW, the Oregon system, the California system,  or schools with similar policies, either for 2021 or indefinitely, students applying to a “test optional” school should take the SAT or ACT, possibly more than once, and if their score is toward the higher of their target school’s average range, absolutely submit that score.

The reality is that in a test optional situation, students with lower scores will not submit and students with higher scores will, which will raise those applicants’ overall average scores each year – creating a de facto requirement to submit a good score in order to stand out.

Finally, even if standardized test scores are optional for admissions, they will not necessarily be optional across the board for merit-based scholarships, both inside and outside of institutions, or for placement in honors-type programs or especially competitive (pre-med; engineering; STEM) majors.

Of course, to take the SAT/ACT you actually have to have access to the test. While the June tests have once again been cancelled locally, fortunately at least the ACT is moving online this fall, and both major tests have pledged to add more opportunities in the fall months to take the test.

No SAT/ACT? Now what?

For those students in a test optional or test blind situation who do not submit scores in support of their application (and even for those who do), everything else becomes that much more important.

I do not envy college admissions counselors this year and next trying to figure out how to make already very difficult decisions without becoming even more arbitrary. Schools not using test scores as part of the admissions decision will have to switch to some form of “holistic admissions” process and my guess is schools who have not used this practice widely are now trying to develop it on the fly.

“Holistic admissions” is simply the consideration of an individual’s entire application – test scores where applicable, GPA, course selection and rigor, intended major, letters of recommendation, personal statement and supporting essays, work history, recognized leadership, sports and extracurriculars, demonstrated interest in the college, and any interesting socio-economic or other factors that give a picture of the whole person.

To further stand out without the traditional standardized tests, students will need to spend additional time polishing these various aspects of their application profile. Thinking strategically about how to get the best out of each application component has now taken on even more importance. I’m planning to offer a workshop in July focused specifically on those themes, so be on the lookout for that.

The COVID-19 crisis has impacted and changed so much, including applying to, getting into, and choosing a college. It’s uncertain still what the full ramifications of these changes will be into the future, but by paying close attention and being practical about these changing university policies, we can navigate them together.

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