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Last year, in response to the pandemic, many colleges made standardized tests optional. Several seismic shifts ensued. First, only 44% of college applicants in 2020 submitted test scores. Applications to the most competitive colleges soared to a record high, which meant that acceptance rates at these schools plummeted to a record low.
So what does that mean for you?
It depends. If you’re a first-generation college applicant, or you come from an underserved community, this is all good news—your chances of being admitted to an elite school are better than ever. But if you attend high school in a traditionally advantaged community, you’ll be facing a more competitive application environment. Why? To adhere to their test-optional policies, colleges are compelled to admit a certain percentage of students who did not submit test scores. These schools also want to promote social equity in admissions. But they’ve been hamstrung by their need to report average SAT/ACT scores of incoming freshmen, which are used to rate schools. Now, by making the SAT and ACT optional, colleges can pursue their equity goals by admitting students who previously would have lowered their ranking. But this means that applicants admitted without test scores will come in great part from underserved communities. For everyone else, test scores will take on heightened importance. Conventional wisdom holds that when the pandemic ends, standardized tests will again become a standard college admissions tool. Admissions officers are likely to be skeptical when applicants from academically high-powered high schools choose not to submit test scores. And with application rates rising at the most competitive colleges, students from such high schools will likely need even higher scores than they did in previous years.
At high schools ranked in the top 10% for college preparation, the average GPA is an unweighted 3.7—up from 3.1 just 20 years ago. This means A averages for most kids. Conversely, SAT and ACT scores have remained constant over the last 20 years. Grade inflation and lack of uniformity in grading have made standardized tests critical tools for admissions officers, who field up to a hundred thousand applications a year. Students planning for college should understand this importance.
How to prepare?
The best way to prepare for standardized tests is through a systemized program of deliberate practice focused on test content. Both the ACT and SAT use extremely repetitive types of questions. Meticulous instruction and deliberate practice are pivotal in helping students recognize such repetition and master the test.
To address the comprehensive range of these tests, substantive prep material needs to be covered. Thus the summer is the ideal time for most students to prepare—particularly the summer between sophomore and junior years. Preparing for the SAT or ACT is not like cramming for a school exam by memorizing loads of material. It’s much more like training for a sport through development of long-term “muscle memory,” and various forms of test-taking strength, speed and agility.
What about younger students?
If you think testing will prove a challenge for your child, an early start will make the process much easier. Fears of starting too early are unfounded. If you want to be a great tennis player, you don’t start practicing a month before Wimbledon – you develop skills over time. Our three daughters began preparing early for the SAT, and each earned perfect scores on the math and writing/language sections. This type of performance is not atypical for students who train properly for standardized tests.