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How to Stand Out to Colleges When Tests are Optional

How to Stand Out to Colleges When Tests are Optional

How to Stand Out to Colleges When Tests are Optional 1000 675 Theo Wolf

With COVID-19 raging across the globe, test centers have remained empty as the SAT and ACT are cancelled for the rest of the spring. Because of this massive disruption to the availability of standardized tests, many universities have already announced (and more may soon follow) that they are going “test-optional” for the coming application season, which means that they are no longer requiring applicants to send in the results of their ACT, SAT, and SAT II’s. Even heavily test-focused bastions like the UC schools have already moved to no longer require the ACT or SAT. Some schools such as Tufts have even gone test-optional for the next 3 admissions cycles. 

Of course, “optional” means that you can still send in your scores if you want to. A student who has already achieved a high score on the SAT can and should definitely still submit their score. But where it gets tricky is for students who have average or below average test scores. “Will it make me look bad if I don’t submit a score?” It’s hard for us to give general advice because the decision depends on the test score, college in question, and the overall profile of the student applying. But based on the track records of historically test-optional schools, our general advice is that it truly is optional for students. 

We can only speculate about how colleges will interpret optional test scores, but because of the non-standardized nature of testing this year (some students have scores and others do not), the overall confidence in the SAT and ACT will be reduced. Because of this, they will be relying much more on other factors.

Does GPA count more now?

Without standardized tests, one would think that colleges will begin to value GPA more. After all, GPA has historically been the backbone of the academic profile for college admissions. However, the coronavirus is also radically changing the way colleges think about GPA. 

Shorter Class Periods. All around the world, schools are progressively dialing back the number of hours that students spend in online instruction. Experts are worried that students are getting an unhealthy amount of daily screen time because of the combination of online instruction, online homework assignments, and mostly digital forms of entertainment. Many schools are actually cutting class time in half and restricting the quantity of homework and assignments. 

More Pass-Fail. The traditional grading system was never designed for the current online digital learning environment. Traditional assessments like tests and quizzes must switch to an open-book and open-note format. Teachers and schools are now required to completely rethink their grading practice overnight, and many are simply switching over to pass-fail. Instead of receiving a letter grade (A,B,C,D,E) students will instead receive a P (pass) or an F (fail).  

All of this contributes to a situation where GPA is no longer the steadfast and reliable measure that it once was. This marks a major shift for current 11th graders especially because historically, grades from second semester junior year are the most important for colleges to consider. Now, colleges will take these grades a lot less seriously than before. 

Standing out when tests are optional

It’s impossible to know precisely how these shifts will affect college admissions, but one thing is certain: academics are going to play the smallest role they have ever played. As admissions officers have less and less confidence in their traditional measures of student aptitude, they are going to look more and more to the untraditional. 

Explore Your Curiosities. Students have more unstructured time than ever before. Not only are classes shortened, but many sports and clubs are on hold or cancelled. We encourage students to take advantage of this opportunity and spend more time exploring what they’re interested in and curious about. Have you always wanted to learn to code? Go do that. Are you curious about seahorses? Go learn about them.

Caring > Knowing. Traditionally, the aim of school is to prepare students with knowledge about the world and the skills to wield that knowledge. All of this was assessed through tests and projects, but that model is less relevant than ever now. In the face of this, we recommend that students develop their ability to care about problems, local or global, and the communities that face them. This then becomes the anchor point around which their personal growth and learning can be built. 

Do Something. With curiosity and caring, the final step is to go and do something. So many traditional summer activities  are cancelled this year and many students are stuck wherever they are. In this climate of inactivity, it’s more important than ever to simply do something. This is not only helpful for standing out to colleges, it’s also beneficial for mental health and motivation. 

The future

There are some changes we already know will be permanent, even after the pandemic has passed. For example, MIT announced it will no longer consider the SAT II, permanently. Other changes are likely to stick around or leave a lasting impression. Some universities may stay test optional. Historically, switching to optional SAT and ACT increases the diversity of a university, which tends to increase positive outcomes without increasing negative ones. Because of this, universities that switch to test optional don’t go back.

Even when the tests return, they will also be different. AP exams this year will be half the length, online, open book, and contain only free response questions (no more multiple choice questions). The TOEFL can be taken at-home, online, and the SAT may soon follow with its own  at-home version. While these shifts are temporary to address the current crisis, they are sparking conversations around how these tests were administered in the first place which could lead to fundamental shifts in the test administering process. 

Ultimately, there’s no way to know for sure, but the global pandemic has unearthed some very interesting and sometimes uncomfortable ideas that the entire field of education will need to grapple with.