As we close in on one year from the onset of widespread COVID lockdown measures (happy anniversary, honey!), it’s worth reexamining the standardized testing landscape, one of only a few areas of life that has changed at all since this time last year. Enough time has passed since the beginning of the pandemic that a new class of students is making plans to prepare for and take the ACT or SAT, and they’re doing so in the midst of unprecedented uncertainty. In this post, I’ll lay out some of the main messages that I’ve been giving to my students over the past year – sort of a ‘2021 COVID Testing Primer’, if you will. Let’s get started.
1) Know your limits.
I’m leading with this one because it’s the most important. Look, you’re reading a blog written by someone who works for a test prep company. I’m somewhat invested in students taking these tests. With that being said, I also remember how stressful this process was for me (I’m not THAT old), so I can only imagine going through it during a global pandemic.
First and foremost, remember that there are more important things than SAT/ACT scores and even the college admissions process in general. Prioritize your health – both physical and mental – and any family commitments you might have. Don’t put yourself through a long prep process and repeated test dates if you have too many other concerns to make that feasible. It’s okay to sit this one out.
Assuming you’re at least exploring the possibility of taking these tests, though, on to the other stuff.
2) Test-optional is NOT the same thing as test-blind.
There’s a tendency amongst students and their parents to lump these two admissions policies together, but they’re actually quite different. Schools that are test-blind will not consider standardized test scores during the admissions process at all, even if you submit them as part of your application. Those institutions that are test-optional, however, will consider scores as part of your application if you submit them but will not penalize you for opting not to do so.
So what does this mean practically? First of all, know the policies for the schools to which you’re applying. There are still relatively few institutions that are actually test-blind – 69 campuses nationwide as of the fall 2021 admissions cycle, per fairtest.org. COVID has pushed most institutions to go test-optional for general admissions, but many of them indicated that it’s intended to be a temporary shift and haven’t changed that stance in the interim. Do the research early; if possible, talk to admissions officers directly to get information straight from the source. Make sure you’re clear not only on what the policies of your top schools are presently but also on what they likely will be at the time you apply.
If you’re applying to schools that are test-optional, the question then becomes ‘to test or not to test?’ To put it simply, it’s still to your benefit to submit scores to test-optional schools if you can score high enough to make your results stand out. Look at the ranges of SAT/ACT results for the schools you’re applying to; they’re typically posted on the admissions page of each institution’s website. If you’re able to score at or above that target level, it’s beneficial to your application for you to submit scores.
3) Test early, test often.
If you’re applying to test-blind schools or know you don’t want to submit scores, feel free to stop reading now. (Or hang out for a few more minutes – I haven’t left my house for 10 months and I’m a skosh lonely.)
If you are planning to submit scores, or you at least know that you want to take the test to see if you can earn scores high enough to submit, it’s important to plan ahead. Test administrations have been getting cancelled more than sitcoms starring racists – looking at you, Roseanne – and it’s impossible to tell at this point when that trend is going to stop. In normal times, I recommend that students allow themselves a large enough window to test 2-3 times, since many people do better with repeated testing. In the COVID era, that number should be even larger, as you should expect that at least some of your administrations will get cancelled.
If you’re a 10th grader, now is a great time to start preparing for the test, making a testing plan, and registering for test dates as far ahead as you can. If your first few administrations get cancelled, you’ve given yourself plenty of time to account for that and still lock in a score before you need to start worrying about applications. In the best-case scenario, all your test administrations go ahead as planned, you’re able to get a score you’re happy with early on, and you can spend your junior year relaxing. (Or, you know, doing 5 hours of AP homework every night.) It’s always better to start too early than it is to start too late; the scores aren’t going to get stale.
4) Be proactive, in as many ways as you can.
We’ve already discussed the importance of seeking out information about the testing policies of the schools to which you’re applying; equally important, though, is proactivity in the lead-up to the test itself. Specifically, remember to stay on top of cancellations. The ACT and College Board are making an effort to notify individual students of test-center shifts or cancellations; the key phrase there, though, is ‘making an effort’.
The reality is that things slip through the cracks fairly regularly. As one example, I have a student whose 2/6 ACT test administration was moved to a test center in a different state; she received no notification whatsoever. Thankfully, she was on top of things and discovered the change in time to cancel her test and get a refund. Don’t count on the system to work the way it should; if there’s one thing that the last year has taught us, it’s that very few systems still do.