Updated at 12:43 p.m. ET on September 16, 2020.
Over the summer, more than 400 colleges decided to stop requiring the SAT or the ACT for admissions, because the pandemic had made taking the tests (or even finding a location to take them) so difficult. Some institutions, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, said their test-optional policy applied only to the high-school graduating class of 2021. Others, including Tufts University and the College of William & Mary, announced a three-year pause. A few jettisoned the tests permanently.
Whether standardized admissions tests will become yet another casualty of the pandemic is unclear. But even if the tests survive, the crisis is transforming their role for millions of anxious teenagers. Some elite colleges went test-optional begrudgingly and expect to return to their pre-pandemic requirements; for other top-ranked schools, there is no going back.
Being test-optional, though, is far different from not taking the scores into consideration at all. In making this move, colleges have created a muddled middle ground that confuses applicants and makes some distrustful of the whole process.
Indeed, even as the test-optional announcements were rolling out from universities this summer, something strange happened: Teenagers continued to sign up for the exams. One of them was Julia Peldunas. The Connecticut high-school senior’s first attempt at the SAT was canceled in mid-March, when she was a junior. Then another one was scrapped in late March, and so was a third try in June. The College Board, which oversees the SAT, said the cancellations in the spring displaced nearly a million juniors who, like Peldunas, planned to take the exam for the first time.
As the summer went on, every college on Peldunas’s list, including the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, and the University of Virginia, dropped its testing requirement. Even so, Peldunas registered to take the SAT on August 29. But in mid-August, the school where Peldunas was meant to take the three-hour exam closed and canceled the test. Hundreds of other testing sites across the U.S. did the same, or reduced capacity. Half of the 400,000 students nationwide who were supposed to take the SAT in August couldn’t.
None of this has discouraged Peldunas, however. She’s scheduled to take the SAT in late September. I asked Peldunas why she is so determined to take a test. “The SAT is a rite of passage that’s been ripped away,” she told me. “I’ve been preparing for years.”
The herculean effort students and their families are making to take a test right now—driving to a testing center a state or two away, or even getting on a plane—illustrates the allure the exams have in our winner-take-all admissions culture. Even before the coronavirus, more than 1,000 schools made the SAT and the ACT optional for admission, a list that grew by the year. At the same time, the combined number of students taking the tests also continued to climb. In the high-school class of 2015, for instance, nearly 1.9 million students took the ACT and 1.7 million took the SAT. In the class of 2019, 1.8 million took the ACT, and among last year’s seniors, 2.2 million took the SAT.
Now, in a year when most seniors can’t take the test, some students believe that a score will tip the scales for them. “Optional means nothing to privileged kids,” Adam Ingersoll, a co-founder and principal of Compass Education Group, an academic-advising and test-prep firm, told me. “They interpret it as required. It doesn’t matter what the policy of a college is. It’s what’s happening in my local sphere. Are kids in my school, in my town, still trying to take a test? If so, I’m going to do everything I can to get a score.”
Test scores are just one of many factors schools consider in “holistic admissions.” But applicants have always placed far more weight on the tests than admissions have—something I observed while embedded in three different colleges for my book Who Gets In and Why. Holistic admissions, which attempt to measure qualities that aren’t quantifiable and are usually gleaned from an applicant’s extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendations, are nearly ubiquitous among selective schools. The more selective the institution, the murkier its process can be. To students (and their parents) who find holistic admissions confusing and opaque, a test score is the one thing that is quantifiable. “For years we told families that testing isn’t the sole piece of data we make our decision on,” James Nondorf, the dean of college admissions and financial aid at the University of Chicago, told me. “Then what’s the first question they ask after we say that: ‘What’s your average test score?’”
In 2018, Chicago became the most prestigious and highest-ranked university ever to go test-optional (at least until this year). Even so, Nondorf said that in a typical admissions cycle, only 15 to 20 percent of applicants take advantage of the university’s optional policy, about the same proportion who are eventually admitted without scores.
How colleges adjust their testing requirements in the middle of a pandemic sends a powerful message about what matters, and applicants respond accordingly. If testing is unnecessary, students and their families question why colleges don’t simply adopt “test blind” policies, in which no scores are considered. The conventional wisdom among teenagers and their parents—especially those in affluent communities, given that standardized-test scores correlate with family income—is that the SAT and the ACT are the indicators by which students from widely varying high schools are judged.
But many in the admissions profession question whether test scores should be used at all in the selection process. Numerous studies show that grades alone are a better predictor of a student’s college success than test scores. That’s why many colleges feel comfortable dropping the SAT or the ACT as an admissions requirement without jeopardizing the academic quality of the admitted class. But other studies show that both metrics taken together are the best predictor of success—better than either measure alone. That’s why some deans—mostly those of elite colleges—and the leaders of the College Board and the ACT believe that test scores provide an added insight when evaluating students.
Others say that test-blind policies take choice away from students who may want to use their high scores to help their application. “We want students to control how they are reviewed,” Andrew Palumbo, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which has been test-optional since 2008, told me.
For most applicants, a test score alone doesn’t show admissions officers anything new. A 2011 national study found that some 60 percent of college applicants have test scores consistent with their academic performance in high school. The remaining students in that study, however, had a significant gap between the two metrics—either high test scores combined with low grades, or low test scores along with high grades. According to the study, female applicants along with Black and Latino students are more likely to have higher GPAs and lower test scores. Meanwhile, students—especially boys—who come from families that make more than $100,000 a year and whose parents have graduate degrees are more likely to have lower GPAs and higher SAT scores.
Researchers found that many students who have relatively low GPAs compared with their SAT scores take more rigorous courses in high school. The reverse is true for students who have high GPAs, but low test scores. This is why selective colleges often suggest that teenagers focus more on taking the toughest courses they can in high school, and less on prepping for the SAT.
High test scores don’t guarantee admission, as I saw one morning while observing application reviews at Emory University in January 2019. Lupe Monterreso, the admissions officer I was sitting with, opened an application and set the timer on her iPhone. Seven minutes. When the alert went off, it was a gentle reminder to move on to the next file.
As Monterreso pored over the student’s transcript, she did a double take. She wasn’t familiar with the high school, and the senior class was much bigger than she was used to seeing, about 1,000 students. This applicant ranked No. 3.
The student had taken more than a dozen AP courses and earned nearly a 4.0 GPA. Her lowest grade in high school was a 91—in ninth grade. The applicant’s SAT score? A near-perfect 1570.
Monterreso asked her colleague Nicole Dancz for an evaluation of the applicant’s extracurricular activities. The grades, curriculum, and test scores were among the strongest they would probably see that day. If the selection process were conducted by a computer programmed to look only at the numbers, this student would have been an automatic acceptance. But Monterreso and Dancz were reminded of something their boss told them often: Academic metrics are important, but they are not everything.
The applicant had solid activities—band, National Honor Society, tutoring—but they read more as a checklist, without a sense of deep commitment to any one in particular. Although the student said she wanted to be a doctor, she had “no activities related to premed.” Monterreso suggested scoring her a three out of five for activities. Dancz wanted to knock it down to a two.
Dancz turned to the essay. The applicant had written about conquering the slide on the playground as a child. “A missed opportunity,” she said. “We didn’t learn much about her.”
Monterreso typed a few notes in the file, and then came to routing the application. “Great kiddo. Incredibly smart,” she told Dancz. Emory accepts almost half of students with credentials like this one’s, but the application illustrated the vagaries of admissions: No special combination of attributes exists that guarantees acceptance. “I’m okay with ‘deny,’” Monterreso said. And that’s where the girl with nearly a 4.0 GPA and an almost perfect SAT score ended up.
While widespread disagreement remains about whether test scores should be used in the selection process, most educators agree that the architects of the SAT never intended it to be the high-stakes assessment for admissions it has become. As the journalist Nicholas Lemann outlines in his book The Big Test, the SAT was first administered in 1926 to measure innate mental ability or aptitude. Thus, its name: Scholastic Aptitude Test.
The SAT was narrowly tailored for elite universities to find smart kids in way-off places who didn’t go to eastern boarding schools. But as the slice of the population entering college widened in the second half of the 20th century, schools embraced the SAT and the ACT as a means of making distinctions among growing numbers of applicants. The tests became cemented in the admissions process when U.S. News & World Report chose test scores as an important element in its college rankings. Colleges felt compelled to report high average scores in order to retain their place in the higher-education hierarchy and keep applications flowing.
But now the SAT and the ACT are facing perhaps their biggest test. The coronavirus has caused mass cancellations of exams and a shift to test-optional admissions at the same time as national protests have erupted over racial inequality and the institutions that perpetuate it, including selective colleges and standardized tests. “It’s very serious,” Lemann told me. “Both the virus and the racial reawakening are causing a one-two punch and forcing to the surface a bunch of issues that have been there forever.”
In May, the University of California Board of Regents, which had debated eliminating SAT/ACT scores before the pandemic struck, decided to do just that with a phased approach. The UC system was to be test-optional for the Class of 2021 and ’22, and then omit scores altogether from the review of in-state applicants in 2023 and ’24. But a judge recently issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the system from accepting test scores at all. UC has appealed the decision.*
Because California is the largest market for the exams, UC’s admissions policies could have a far-reaching impact on other elite schools in the coming years.In the fall of 2018, nearly 44,800 Californians enrolled in out-of-state colleges across the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. “If students don’t need to test for UC, then many aren’t going to want to take one just because an out-of-state private school wants a score,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, the vice provost for enrollment management at Oregon State University and a frequent critic of testing. At the same time, he told me, the colleges that had recently gone test-optional might see an uptick in applications as a result, in effect making them more selective if they accept the same number of students. Schools that wish to maintain their selectivity may be reluctant to reinstate testing requirements after the pandemic. “Now you’re going to go back and maybe depress your numbers? It’s going to be very difficult to do that.”
One factor about test scores that often goes unnoticed is the signaling power that published average scores have for the entire college-search industry. Although I saw a student with a 1570 get denied at Emory and one with an 1120 get in, what most people see is that Emory’s average admitted students have a score from 1390 to 1510. That range creates the entire context for counselors, students, and families. Is Emory a reach or a safety school? Should I even bother to apply?
As long as colleges offer an option that applicants think gives them a leg up, some teenagers will continue to look for every edge. But when the only students submitting scores are those well above the average, any meaning that published scores have is diminished. And that might be the moment when standardized tests die.
This article is adapted from Jeffrey Selingo’s book Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.
* This article previously contained outdated information about the University of California's admissions policies.