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What Colleges Will Look For When Standardized Tests Aren’t Part of Acceptance

If you are applying to college in Fall 2021, you’re probably already aware that the admissions process in the US isn’t going to function as normal. Standardized tests during COVID-19 have been canceled or postponed, making it challenging for students to meet the testing requirement. 

As a result, colleges are learning to adapt and find new ways to measure student performance.

Many of them are doing this by suspending the requirement for SAT or ACT exam scores for Fall 2021, and in some cases, longer. Schools making the change to become test-optional include Cornell, Tulane, Boston University, Oregon public universities, as well as many others. 

But it might not only be students applying for a spot in Fall 2021 or Spring 2022 that will get to skip out on the high-stakes testing requirement. This could be a part of a larger trend that forever changes the college admissions process.

Schools are Dropping Standardized Testing Requirements 

Standardized testing with the SAT and ACT has been a controversial topic for years. It was first introduced to provide greater education access to promising students. But critics argue that it does the opposite — it restricts access to higher education and provides an unfair advantage to families who have the resources to pay for things like expensive test prep. 

The testing requirement has been debated by colleges seeking to level the playing field for applicants. And some institutions have made testing an optional piece of the application. At the end of 2019, more than 1,050 colleges and universities didn’t require standardized testing for admissions, according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing.  

Now with restrictions put in place that have made testing difficult during COVID-19, even more colleges are considering test-optional applications. And that is forcing them to re-think their approach to admissions. 

“Standardized testing has been controversial, but now colleges are being forced to put far less weight on it,” says Gloria Chun, private college admissions counselor and founder of Top Choice College Admissions Counseling

Because of COVID-19, we’re seeing universities drop the requirement for the test for the upcoming application year. Chun thinks that this could lead to a long-term trend of colleges moving away from standardized testing — that they may use this time as an opportunity to think a little more deeply about their application process.  

Other schools are using this as a chance to drop the testing requirement completely. The University of California system (UC) recently voted to stop requiring students to submit SAT and ACT scores as part of their application. The test requirement will be suspended through 2024 and will be completely eliminated by 2025. They will take the next few years to try to develop their own specific UC testing standard, but regardless of whether they are able to, they will stop considering SAT and ACT scores as part of the admissions process by 2023. 

Many of the schools that are dropping the testing requirement will still accept test results as part of the application if a student chooses to provide them. But students won’t be penalized for not taking the test. 

Without the SAT or ACT, What Should a Student Focus On?

Standardized testing has been the focus for so long, it may be overwhelming to think about what your application should look like without the test scores. Adding to the complication is the question about GPA. Because of COVID-19, many high schools gave pass or no-pass grades rather than letter grades in the spring and there is a possibility that may continue into the fall. That means putting more weight on GPA isn’t currently a viable option for admissions departments. 

How will universities make admissions decisions with less of a focus on these metrics? 

Because of this change, Chun now thinks that the evaluation process for university admission will need to become more personalized, rather than relying on test scores. “Now that test scores matter less, these things that were a little more peripheral are now counting for more. Students will need to show how they use their time to do extracurricular activities or showcase their leadership. I think these things will now count for even more.”

For example, the University of Chicago, which has a test-optional application allows applicants to submit additional supplements to the application which generally aren’t standard on most college applications. 

They leave the supplemental material option broad, saying that students can include, but aren’t limited to “creative writing projects, highlights from music/dance/visual art/theater performance, school capstone projects such as AP Capstone or the equivalent, research projects, business plans, or other work of note.” They also allow for self-reporting of other exam results like AP or IB scores. 

Chun also believes the essay and letters of recommendation will play an even bigger role in the application, giving students the opportunity to demonstrate how well they know themselves and how committed they are to making a contribution to their community. 

As we continue to deal with COVID-19, extracurricular activities and volunteer work will look different, and students may need to consider alternative ways to stay involved in activities and in their community. 

“I’ve been telling my students that they all need to find ways to volunteer. You have to show that you can take the tools you have and give back to society,” says Chun. Despite shelter in place restrictions, she’s seeing students find unique ways to volunteer, like helping small businesses re-invent their online presence so they can continue to do business or holding a bake sale and donating the proceeds. 

But if volunteering isn’t possible because you have responsibilities at home, don’t disregard those. Have you had to take up domestic responsibilities because your parents had to work and you needed to take care of your siblings? Or maybe you’ve been helping an ailing grandparent or delivering food to someone in your community who is immobile. “All of those things will come into play so as to broaden what activities colleges are counting and considering in an application.”

The college admissions process will look different this year and it may never go back to how it was previously. As schools adopt their admissions process, students need to think about how they adapt to a test-optional application and showcase themselves when test scores aren’t as important. 

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest. 

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.