By Nicholas LaPoma, Esq.
Let’s be frank: studying for the SAT isn’t cool. I have not yet met a high schooler whose pupils dilate at the sight of a systems of equations problem, or whose mouth waters when I bring up the grammatical similarities between a semicolon and a period, or who looks forward to months of demanding studying. So when most of America’s colleges and universities adopted test optional policies amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the flood of phone calls from opportunistic students and skeptical parents asking whether they or their children should “still take the SAT” wasn’t too surprising.
This piece seeks to address why taking the SAT is still important. While the inspiration for this piece was the wave of new policies that most directly affect seniors applying for college this fall, I’ll also address how this trend may impact the now-juniors who will be applying to college in 2022. I’ll use admission policies from top universities to show how not submitting SAT scores — we’ll call that “applying test optional” — influences the rest of your application. Finally, I hope to demonstrate some situations when pursuing a test optional application might make sense for some college-hopeful students. I’ll rely on questions that parents and students have asked to frame this piece.
For the sake of transparency, I want to acknowledge my obvious bias: I lead a test prep company. Nevertheless, the prevalence of blatant misinformation about these new policies has pushed me to use my knowledge of the standardized exam and college admissions processes to correct some of these abounding fallacies.
Q: No one’s going to submit an SAT score because so many schools are test optional. So why should I spend the money and time to prepare?
A: Hofstra University, a test optional school in Hempstead, New York, writes that over 75% of their applicants submit standardized exam scores. I haven’t been able to find a reliable statistic on how many admitted students submitted test scores, but I’d wager that it’s well above 75%. The SAT will be around for a while.
Q: My school went pass/fail this term. What should I do?
A: Nearly all institutions have stated that they will not penalize students if their school adopted a pass/fail grading system, and I believe them, but I also wonder how colleges will be able to distinguish between the soon-to-be great scientists and the more average students if they both earned a “P” in Advanced Chemistry. The SAT (especially the SAT II) may provide another reliable benchmark on which colleges can compare the academic potential of prospective applicants.
Q: My family’s gone through a lot this year. Should I still take the SAT?
A: If you’ve been adversely affected by COVID-19 and believe that it will impact your performance on the SAT, consider applying test optional. Cornell University writes that the SAT may still be a “meaningful differentiator in particular for students who: live near or attend a school that will be open, and where testing will be offered or… have not experienced lost income for one or more of their household providers or other significant hardships and losses during 2020.”
Q: I’m applying for college in the fall of 2022. Am I going to need to take the SAT, since COVID-19 has caused so much disruption?
A: While the move towards test optional policies has been gaining momentum in recent years, COVID-19 seems unlikely to cement test optional policies as the norm in college admissions. Many colleges that have adopted test optional policies due to COVID-19 have stipulated that they are one-year policies and will expire when the now-juniors apply for college in 2022. Yale College, for instance, recently published a statement expressly stating that “transfer applicants and students who intend to apply for admission to enroll in fall 2022 or later should plan to complete the ACT or SAT by the appropriate deadlines.”
Q: I need to earn scholarships to be able to afford college. Can I apply test optional?
A: Many scholarships require students to submit standardized exam scores. Students hoping to earn college scholarships should review that scholarship’s conditions to see if they offer awards to test optional students. Most of the scholarships I’ve seen, like the National Merit Incentive Scholarships, require students to submit SAT scores.
Q: I want to apply to specialized college programs. Do I still have to take the SAT?
A: Students seeking to apply to specialized academic or athletic programs must take standardized exams. George Washington University, for instance, adopted a test optional policy but exempted certain students — NCAA athletes and students seeking to be admitted to their seven-year BA/MD program. Similarly, certain schools within a university system may be test optional while others may still require exams. For instance, SUNY Binghamton requires that applicants submit standardized exam scores, while Purchase College does not. So, based on your individual academic goals, you may still be required to take the SAT even though your prospective institution adopts a test optional policy.
Some colleges like the Fashion Institute of Technology use the SAT to place students into higher-level courses. Many colleges also exempt students from introductory classes if they’ve performed well on SAT II exams. Thus, taking the SAT may allow you to skip those tedious low-level courses and advance your degree more quickly.
Q: So if I don’t take the SAT, should I spend more time on the other parts of my application?
A: Cornell’s Admission Department writes that admissions officers “will consider with increased scrutiny [the] other application documents” from students who do not submit test scores. Without your SAT score, they expect to see clear evidence of “excellent academic preparation,” which includes “challenging courses and excellent grades in secondary school… [and] evidence of commitment and effort to pursuing other challenging learning experiences.” This statement is fluffed up with collegiate pedanticism, but I believe that the intent is clear: without the SAT, your application needs to explicitly demonstrate your academic potential.
We all overestimate our chances, especially in college admissions. Tens of thousands of high school students apply for the same five-hundred seats every year. So when students tell me that they’re considering applying test optional, I always ask what else they’re doing to differentiate themselves. How are your grades? What extracurriculars have you been involved in, and to what extent do you participate? How else will you demonstrate your academic, social, emotional, and personal development to your prospective schools? If they can’t come up with anything, or their answers aren’t truly stellar, I advise them that taking the SAT might be the right path for them.
I often say that test optional schools view the standardized exams like an extracurricular, or any other feather in your proverbial applicant’s cap. If you aren’t investing the time there, you need to do something else to fill that gap. It might make sense for a student to apply test optional when they’re taking advanced classes at local universities or pursuing leadership positions in extracurriculars. So, if you’re considering applying test optional, everything else in your application needs to be superb. Don’t take advantage of the test optional policy to slack off.
Q: Standardized exams have always been a weakness of mine. Why should I take the SAT if it might hinder my application?
A: This might be an instance where taking advantage of the test optional policy may help you. If your good-faith scores don’t reflect your academic capabilities, I’d encourage you to consider the test optional route. I specify “good faith” to illustrate how you shouldn’t skirt your preparation; you need to prepare for exams thoroughly and honestly to determine if they don’t reflect your academic potential.
Hofstra University advises students whose “best test scores are significantly below Hofstra’s published average and median scores” to apply test optional. I’m a bit more clear with my students: if their academic profile is competitive but they have scores below the 50th percentile of that particular college, I encourage them to apply test optional if possible.
I believe that the University of Chicago, which adopted a test optional policy in 2018, that summarizes this sentiment well on their Admissions Website:
“For many applicants, an SAT or ACT score can reflect their academic preparedness in this broader context. If you feel your SAT or ACT reflects your academic preparedness well, then please feel free to send this with your application. Some domestic applicants may feel that an SAT or ACT score does not fully reflect their academic preparedness or potential. If this is the case for you, you may select UChicago’s test-optional method of application, and not supply SAT or ACT scores with your application.“
Q: I only want to apply to the University of California. Why should I still take the SAT?
A: You might’ve heard that the University of California system adopted a revolutionary test optional/test blind policy. I hate to bring bad news, but this new development might not apply to you. For students applying in fall 2021 and fall 2022, the UC system will be test optional. For students applying in fall 2023 and fall 2024, the UC system will be test blind exclusively for students who graduate from California high schools (out-of-state applicants may apply test optional). So depending on your age and location, you still might want — or need — to submit the SAT if you want to gain admissions to any UC school. And, come fall 2025, the University of California plans to implement its own independent standardized admissions exam. Yikes.
So, why should you still take the SAT?
Although COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of test optional policies, they’re clearly not for everyone. The decision to apply test optional must depend on the strength of a student’s academic and extracurricular profile, their need for merit scholarships, their educational goals, and other extenuating circumstances. Many admissions officers have stipulated that their reactionary test optional policies expire when students apply for college in the fall of 2022. In my opinion, higher education will continue to view the SAT as a meaningful differentiator among applicants and a reliable demonstration of academic potential.