To Test or Not to Test? A Mid-Summer Case Study

By Casey Near


to test or not

Writer’s note: this was written on July 1, 2020. If you’re reading this in the distant land of the future (even, say, August), make sure to check our most recent posts for up to date information, as we find this information can change quickly.

As Collegewise counselors, we pride ourselves on our (borderline) obsession with historical data. And while hundreds of colleges have been test-optional for many years, this year, it's become nearly universal. Given that, we're going to unpack why this widespread change impacts students so individually -- and why our advice today might change come August 1 (and then again on September 1 and so on).

With seniors in the thick of finalizing their admissions plans (and juniors eagerly building them), we felt it was essential to speak to what we know to be true today. We hope the more you can see the variety of paths ahead, the more you'll know there isn't one path to success or one way to applying to college this year (or frankly, any year).

Before I walk through some sample students and how we'd approach testing with each, some ground rules:

  1. If a student is currently struggling with their physical or mental health, standardized testing is not important. There are far more critical things both in life and in the application process. And colleges know that. Even heady institutions like Caltech!
  2. A "good" score is relative to a college list; I consider "good" if it's additive to an application. By that definition, "good" in a test-optional world is if it's above the middle 50% of admitted students in recent years.

With that, here's a sample of how I'd approach testing with three sample students.

Student A

This student is a relatively good test taker (scoring at or slightly above the median 50% range of their schools) and is thinking of applying Early Decision to Cornell. Based on the test-optional language from Cornell and the strength of this student with testing, we'd recommend forging ahead with test prep and planning to take either the SAT or ACT. It would benefit their profile (as an already robust test-taker), and they're eyeing a school that hasn't historically been test-optional, made it a one-year commitment, and was a bit wishy-washy in their statement around testing.

Student B

This student hasn't yet taken a standardized test. They are hoping to take the SAT in the fall and will not be applying Early Decision anywhere. Their list includes the UC system in California, as well as private colleges that are a mix of historically test-optional schools and some newly test-optional. And, they are hoping to qualify for merit scholarships. Because many colleges haven't yet clarified how they will award merit scholarships this cycle (something far more attached to test scores than admission decisions historically), I would recommend preparing to sit for a test in the fall.

Student C

This student hasn't taken a standardized test yet and has a list of historically test-optional schools, as well as truly test-optional schools for this year (meaning, no caveats like Cornell above). They are very anxious about testing, practice tests are coming in below that middle 50% of scores, and their grades and schoolwork are strong. They don't need merit scholarships, and the stress of testing this fall would likely impact their school performance and/or mental health. For this student, I would not recommend forging ahead with test prep.

If you’re most aligned with Student A or Student B, test prep may make sense for you this summer and early fall. Whether it’s a refresher course or some private tutoring, you can learn about what we’re offering (and see a full schedule) here. And if you decide against formal test prep, there are always free resources like this and this.

As you can see, our answers will vary, but primarily it centers on this: What is the best use of your time?

In a holistic admission world, we can't make testing more important than the colleges do. Colleges have always said that the courses you take and the grades you get are the most crucial part of your academic profile, so we will weigh our testing advice against what will ensure you continue to do well academically and emotionally, too. And with limited grading data from the spring, colleges will likely weigh 7th semester (1st-semester senior year) grades more heavily. While it's never quite this zero-sum, if the option is to prep to increase a score by 40 points or to get strong grades in your hardest classes yet, we will always recommend the latter.

PS: And really, check out this piece on the holistic admission world we reference above. Perhaps for no other reason than to be gifted with gems like this: "We, emphatically, do not seek to create a competitive public service 'Olympics' in response to this pandemic. What matters to us is whether students' contribution or service is authentic and meaningful to them and to others, whether that contribution is writing regular notes to frontline workers or checking in with neighbors who are isolated. We will assess these contributions and service in the context of the obstacles students are facing."

Looking for more advice related to testing? Check out this episode of our podcast, Test Scores are Never the Most Important Thing.