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Should you or shouldn’t you? What does “test optional”

really mean for your admissions process?

Kudos to all of the students navigating high school over the last 12 months. Virtual learning on the fly, lagging Cisco platforms, social lives reduced to talking heads on tiny screens … I certainly couldn’t have done what they’ve done. Add applying to colleges they might never get to actually see before they commit, sports seasons, and not knowing whether “college” in the fall would take place at home on their tablets, and the stress on these kids reached unbelievable heights.

And then there’s the SAT …

The thing that’s always been an unnecessary pain point to begin with. (And that’s coming from someone who coaches the SAT and ACT for a living.) Something fascinating has happened over the last year. Almost all colleges have adopted at least some form of a “test optional” policy, placing a greater emphasis on an applicant’s character, commitment, and community involvement. That wasn’t entirely brought on by the pandemic, either. As recently as early 2019 there was talk of colleges evaluating whether an applicant would be the “right fit” for their school on a par with standardized test scores.

But what’s interesting is that while colleges seem to be getting the message out that test scores aren’t as important as they used to be, it seems that students and parents are more concerned than ever about them. Where is that coming from? Guidance counselors? The overly-competitive nature of the college admissions game? Residual effects of the Varsity Blues fiasco? Or just general anxiety about a changing process at a time when it feels like too much is changing all around us, every day?

Whatever the reason, I’m here to help. If the SAT and/or ACT has been a cause of stress in your family lately, know this: every student will get into a college that’s right for them. An SAT score might not automatically get them in, but it certainly can’t be the one thing that keeps them out, either. “Test Optional” should make the process easier, not tougher, so here’s what I can tell you.

One of my recent clients, a parent, shared a conversation they had with an Admissions Officer at the student’s top-choice college. Not an Ivy League school, but definitely no “fallback school”, either. The Officer explained that while they weren’t requiring SAT scores for admissions, if the choice between two applicants came down to one student who submitted scores a little lower than the range they usually accept, and one who didn’t send scores, then all else being equal they’d choose the student whose scores were under their range.

I found two very reassuring bits of information in that conversation: one, that in the overall picture of college admissions “Test Optional” means exactly that. You don’t have to sit for the test if you don’t want to. But also that it’s okay to take the test and fall a little under the score you think you need to get into a certain school. Scores aren’t cutoffs. Ranges aren’t absolutes. So if you think you’re close enough for a certain school, or could get there, then go for it – but don’t stress out about the test as it approaches.

There’s been more than enough to feel anxious about over the last 12 months. Don’t let SAT/ACT scores be part of that!