Author’s note: writing about standardized testing for the last year has felt like juggling whilst on a circus ball; there are a million moving parts, and the ground is shifting beneath you constantly. So, for those visiting us from the future, know this was written on January 13, 2021. As we saw last year, things changed on the college-side month to month, but frankly, our advice stayed pretty consistent. We will continue to update the blog if this advice changes.
It feels like just yesterday I was doing the mental gymnastics with the class of 2021 around this central question: to test or not to test? In the face of a pandemic and racial injustices, it felt -- and frankly, continues to feel -- like an unnecessary hurdle to ask students to jump over. I'm of the mindset (as are, well, thousands of colleges and educators) that standardized testing is at best inaccurate and at worst inequitable, so I'm hopeful that standardized testing starts to fade away. The US has had test-optional schools since 1969, and this pandemic has thankfully accelerated that trend.
While some universities and colleges had the foresight to make test-optional or test-blind decisions for two- or three-year trial runs (or, some permanently), the majority of colleges who limited their test-optional decision to last cycle alone will need to make a new decision for the class of 2022. So, juniors find themselves in limbo, much like the class before them.
One thing that’s different this year is that colleges are going through the test-optional reading cycle right now, and colleges are generally slow moving when it comes to big changes. At this point, it's far easier to stick with test-optional policies for the class of 2022 than it is to revert to the pre-pandemic policy, and then possibly have to backtrack later this year. And if the February ACT and March SAT continue to be cancelled for large swaths of the country, it's very likely colleges will remain test optional for the class of 2022.
That's a whole lot of hypotheticals and uncertainty to consider. And those hypotheticals frankly don't help you, dear reader, to decide if pursuing a standardized test makes sense for you. So, I wanted to share a few ways to think through this, especially now that we've navigated this limbo-dance once already.
Test optional means test optional
First, colleges mean it when they say test optional means test optional. I've written about this before, so I won't belabor it here, but any sound decision-making around if and when to test stems from knowing this to be true. If we remove the fear of "but won't it disadvantage me?" from the equation, it allows you to make safer, better decisions.
Remember that you as an applicant are the sum of a lot of parts: your transcript, the courses you chose to take, your letters of recommendation (for schools that require it), how you chose to spend your time in activities, hobbies, or family responsibilities, and how you present yourself through essays. Testing, for schools that are test optional, is just one piece of a large puzzle. Which leads me to…
Where is your time best spent?
In a test-optional world, you get to decide where your energy is best applied. For some, that’s on finishing the year strong academically; for others, it’s tinkering with burgeoning hobbies or interests. A school going test optional empowers you to decide how to spend your time. Because if we remember that optional means optional, and holistic means holistic, you are the sum of a lot of parts. And testing, if you choose to submit it, is just one of those parts.
Focus on the parts where you already shine and figure out how to shine some more. If you’re already good at testing, then that’s a place to focus. And "good at testing" isn't a universal measuring stick wherein one score is good, and another is bad; it's all relative to the schools to which you apply. For some schools, an 1100 on the SAT is well above their median. For others, it's below.
The second piece people often forget is that testing takes time. It’s not often factored into the decision-making around if and when to test. While we may focus on the time to prep, or the time to sit and take the test, we don't often focus on the time we could have spent on something else (or “opportunity cost” for you future economists out there).
And that something else, in the world of holistic admission, may carry more weight than that score, especially if you're not scoring above the school's median range.
When will I know more?
Soon. Most colleges announced test-optional policies between April and July before last year’s application cycle. Colleges are currently in the thick of application-reading season, but once they come up for air in March, and if February and March ACT and SAT test dates continue to see cancellations, it’s likely that final policy decisions for the class of 2022 will come out by April.
If you’re a junior who is good at testing (again, relative to your growing college list), the timing of when you might test then depends on something very much out of our control (the pandemic). For now, register for a test date when it seems safe in your region to do so and when it best aligns with your schedule. And take comfort in knowing that if colleges remain test optional, strong test scores can only help you, and being without test scores will not hurt you.
Since this can get a bit confusing in the hypothetical, here are two sample scenarios for you to think through:
Student A is a junior with a 21 on a practice ACT. He lives in California, and he's likely to apply to the UC System, a few Cal State campuses, and his current top choice, Santa Clara University. The UC System and SCU are test optional for the class of 2022, and Cal State is test blind; so, this decision hinges on how his score falls as compared to UC and SCU’s median scores. Since SCU's median ACT range is 28-32, I'd recommend not sitting for a standardized test.
Student B is a junior with a 1250 on a practice SAT. She lives in Florida and is hoping to apply to a few of the public institutions in Florida, and is also currently interested in Eckerd, U Miami, and U Georgia. Because Florida was the only public system not to go test optional for the class of 2021 (more on that fall-out, and frankly, absurdity here), it's likely they will remain test dependent. For this student, it hinges on how much she will want access to the public system; if so, I would recommend planning to test if and when it is safe to do so.
If you like a quick and easy list, here’s a summary of how to consider if and when to test:
- For the class of 2022, colleges will likely confirm test-optional policies sometime in March-May of this year.
- If your test site is canceled, please for the love of all things, don't drive across state lines or force a way to test somewhere else. Stay safe, stay healthy. And know that the more test sites that are canceled, the more likely colleges will remain test optional.
- If the schools on your list announce they are test optional, take a pause and assess: is testing the best use of my time? If your score is at or above a school's median, then my answer would be yes. Your score would likely help you. But if it's more than 100 points below the median range (or 2-3 points for the ACT) after you've done some prep, I would consider refocusing on schoolwork, your activities, and your engagement with the world around you.
- If your schools have not yet announced they are test optional by the time you need to prep or test (and remember, colleges will accept test scores all the way through December of your senior year), you have a few options:
- Delay prep or testing until you have final confirmation (the latest decisions will likely come in July), knowing (if it's safe to do so), you can take a test all the way through December. Even at that time, it would still be good to think through if it'll help you, and if it's the best use of your time.
- OR, shift your focus to test-optional schools, and make a testing plan based on how your practice test falls relative to their median scores (if above, test; if not, consider not testing, knowing it won't negatively impact you).
As we wait for news from colleges, remember that the final decision of how to proceed will rest with you. In a test-optional world, the decision to test rests squarely on you and your environment: can you test, is it a good use of your time, and will it be additive to your application. So, take it if you can, send it if it’s good relative to your list, and then move onto more joyful, fulfilling things this year.
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