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To Test or Not to Test...

Testing in a Test-Optional world.


Should you take the SAT or ACT this year?

Quick take: Take the tests if you can. Take them soon after finishing Algebra 2. (With certain exceptions.)


More and more colleges extended their test-optional status for the class of 2023 students who will be applying to college in Fall 2022.

Both the University of California and the California State University systems have permanently dropped the tests for admissions. Therefore, if you are ONLY applying to the UC or CSU, don't bother taking the tests. Harvard extended their test-optional status for the next 4 application cycles. This includes the high school graduating class of 2026 . As of the beginning of 2022, over 1,800 four year universities have dropped the testing requirement and gone test optional, some like Carleton and Macalester have gone test blind meaning that they won't look at the scores for anything at all from admissions to scholarships to course placement. In 2021, few schools including the Service Academies and Georgetown still required tests or a darned good explanation why they weren't taken. Even some international universities went test optional. The colleges have now had a chance to run a test-optional admission cycle. Most colleges reported that about half of their admitted students submitted scores, and the other half didn't. The more selective colleges all saw a large increase in the number of applicants. Now that they have the first test-optional freshman going into their second year, they've seen that they have been able to attract not only more applicants but a more diverse applicant pool. Many have also attracted better academically qualified applicants; students with higher GPA, but who don't perform well on standardized tests. The academic potential and ability of the the students does not seem to have been affected by whether the student submitted test scores or not. Strategically, students are only reporting high scores at test-optional schools. This plus the increased number of applicants make schools happy because they can reject a larger number of students and thereby appear more highly selective, and they can report the higher scores both of which help them with their rankings in the highly questionable US News and World Reports Best Colleges rankings. The biggest losers in this situation are the College Board responsible for the SAT, the ACT, and the test-preparation tutors.


The best time to take the tests is soon after completing Algebra 2. The math on the tests covers geometry, algebra, and intermediate algebra (Algebra 2). The ACT traditionally has had about 4 out of 50 questions that are more likely covered in trigonometry, but that is not significant enough to delay taking the test. You don't have to wait until junior or senior year. If you are a sophomore and have completed Algebra 2, take the tests and see how you do. Many students who wait until junior or senior year and have continued on into trigonometry and calculus will have to go back and review their algebra and geometry to remember what they learned a few years ago.

The question remains: if you can safely take the test, should you take it?


Registration for the tests has been disrupted by the repeated canceling of tests. Generally college counselors advise students to take the tests at least twice before the application deadlines in the fall and winter of senior year. (We also advise checking out both the SAT and ACT to see which one the student's prefer.) The second part of this question, “can you take it safely” is the most essential part. If you cannot safely take a test, don’t. It is that simple. Do not plan to drive hundreds of miles or to another state. If the test is offered nearby, and it is not canceled, my advice, go ahead and take the test.


If you cannot register or if they cancel the test and can’t reschedule, accept it.


Test scores are a data point. The colleges have shown that they can make admissions decisions without that data point. The consensus is that most of the selective and highly selective colleges will continue to be test-optional for this year's juniors who will be applying in Fall 2022.


HOWEVER, you MUST check the TESTING requirements of the specific schools you are considering. The uncertainty caused by the Covid pandemic has leached into college applications. We don't know if students will be able to take the tests in time for the Fall application season. We don't know until they announce it, what each college's test decision looks like.

Very highly selective test-optional schools, like Northwestern and Brown waffle. Northwestern says, you don't have to take the tests or report scores that "you may feel disappointed" in. They will not, they say, consider the lack of test scores as a negative. However, they do say "That said, if you have test scores you feel duly reflect your academic potential, we welcome them." Brown comments: "If you are not happy with your standardized test score, the choice of whether to submit that score is completely yours; your application will be considered complete and contextually evaluated whether or not you submit scores."


What to do? If you can take the test safely, take it and see how you do. If you score well, think about doing some preparation and take it a second time. "Well" is an imprecise target. For the most highly selective colleges (below 10% acceptance rate) Brown, Middlebury, Northwestern, etc. scoring1400 (32+ ACT) is a low threshold for the middle 50% of enrolled students. For slightly less highly selective schools (11-25% acceptance rate), USC, Amherst, Northeastern, Georgetown etc., this means scoring 1300 (29+ ACT). For the rest of the 2,500 schools scoring well can start at 1050 SAT (24+ ACT). Please note that the majority of colleges accept between 50 to 80% of applicants


How do you know if you've scored "well?" Usually you would check the "freshman profile" of a college. However, since only the highest scorers are submitting their scores you will see the ranges ticking upward from the pre-Covid data. Here is a pdf of the SAT/ACT ranges for students enrolled in Fall 2019 (pre-pandemic). This pdf shows ranges, they are not cut-off scores or absolute thresholds. In all cases, 25% of the enrolled students scored lower than the range, and 25% scored higher. The standardized tests has never been the most important aspect of college admissions. The scores measure how well you can do on specific types of test, they do not measure your intelligence or likelihood of succeeding in college.


The exception to the general advice is for students who have never performed up to their academic abilities on standardized tests. If the tests don’t show the intelligent, capable person that you are, then in 2022 don’t bother taking the tests. Give yourself a break and pour your energy into your academics.


Which test should you take?

There are many articles and books written about the differences between the SAT and the ACT. According to Tom Ehlers of Method Test Prep and Method Learning, the question comes down to your math and English abilities.


If you are strong in math and can review Algebra through Algebra 2 and Geometry: take the SAT. It has two math sections.


If you are stronger in reading comprehension, grammar, and English, take the ACT. It has only one math section. The science section is basically reading comprehension and the ability to understand graphs.

  • ACT test questions tend to be more clear and straightforward, but the SAT recently revamped its tests to bring its question style closer to the ACT format.

  • Timing: the ACT requires you to answer more questions in a shorter period of time. However, the questions tend to be more straightforward than the SAT.

  • Suggestion: take a timed practice test in both the SAT and ACT and see which appeals to you. This is better than using a practice book. Students need to experience the time limits.

  • Take both the SAT and ACT to see which test appeals to you more, there is a difference.

  • There are a number of ways to take practice tests. High schools offer them. There are online resources ranging from free Kahn Academy , ACT , to low cost: $25/test from organizations like Method to more. Google SAT or ACT practice tests or diagnostic tests.


When to take the test?


Basically, the tests are an evaluation of basic skills in both English and math. The math covered is up through Algebra 2, so plan to take the test soon after completing Algebra 2 so the algebra and geometry concepts are relatively fresh. The English section is grammar and reading comprehension which if your school has done its job properly you should have mastered by the end of 9th grade.


The tests are offered several times during the year, but only some of the test dates offer a copy of the test and answers so you can see exactly what you got right and wrong. It costs around $20, but is well worth the investment.


  • SAT: Question and Answer Service, available only March, May, October test dates

  • ACT: Test Information Release, available only December, April, and June

So, take the test when you can get the results, then assuming you plan on taking the test a second time, skip the next test date and sign up to take it again. Why wait? Because the answer key may not appear by the time of the immediately following test date. Use the results either on your own to study for the next test, or to provide to a test tutor so they can understand which concepts were difficult for or that you made mistakes on. If can't schedule for one of the listed test answer tests, look for full-length practice tests with scoring online.


Should I prepare for the tests or use a tutor?


Test preparation can help you master the content, help you brush up on forgotten equations, or solidify your reading comprehension. That’s 80% of the test. The other 20% of prepping will help you with test strategies and recognizing patterns aka “tricks.”


What type of learner are you? Are you self-motivated? Will you set aside the time to go through a structured test preparation schedule to improve your scores? Or do you need help and guidance? Only you can answer this question.


There are a number of inexpensive and free resources from companies like Method Test Prep. Both the SAT (College Board) and the ACT also offer free resources.


Summary, take the test if you can. If you can’t or standardized testing doesn’t work for you, then don’t. The overall takeaway is, do what you can, then stop worrying about it. Remember in 2021 around 50% of students submitted scores and in most cases, there was no appreciable difference between acceptance offers for those who did or did not submit scores.


Remember to breathe.

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