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Standardized Tests and College Admissions 2024

Standardized tests are in the news again, and both students and parents have questions about the importance of the tests and what “test optional” really means. If you’d like to know more about the tests and college admissions, read on.

Why do standardized tests exist?

Here are the main reasons:

·       They measure relevant skills. Standardized tests measure some of the skills that go into college readiness, such as reading comprehension, grammar skills, and math. They don’t measure everything that’s important, but they’re a part of the picture.

·       They’re the same for everyone. Applicants come from different schools, take different classes, and have different teachers, and that makes it hard to compare students who had very different experiences. But the tests are the same for everyone, which makes them a common measuring stick. Even though every test has different questions, every SAT (and ACT) measures the same skills in the same way, and that makes it possible to compare students with each other.

·       We know who took the test. Test security isn’t perfect, but imposters are very rare, which means that we can be pretty confident that the test score was earned by the applicant and not someone else. Compare that to other elements of the application: it’s very hard to know who actually wrote an applicant’s admissions essays, and cheating in high school is a real problem.

What’s different in 2024?

In the last few years, more and more schools went “test optional.” This started because the tests were unavailable during COVID lockdown, but test-optional policies continued because they were popular and increased the number of applications that colleges received. But the tide has turned. More and more selective colleges, including Harvard, Cal Tech, MIT, Dartmouth, Brown, and UT at Austin, have reinstated test requirements.

Why are they doing that? One big reason is grade inflation: when everyone has great grades, having great grades doesn’t really mean as much as it used to. Also, colleges are seeing that students who were admitted without submitting scores are more likely to struggle with college work. When the colleges don’t trust grades and want a fair way to compare students’ skills, they turn back to standardized tests.


Aren’t most colleges still test optional? Do I need to take an SAT or ACT? Should I?

Yes, most colleges are still test optional, which means that you don’t have to take an SAT or ACT if your target schools don’t require a score. But you should take one of the tests if it’s going to help you gain admission or qualify for scholarships. If you’re applying to competitive schools, you should look for opportunities to distinguish your application from others, and a great standardized test score is a way to do that. Lots of applicants have stellar GPAs, but top SAT and ACT scores are relatively rare. For many students, acing the SAT or ACT is the best way to improve their chances of admission.

Will NOT submitting a score hurt my application?

Maybe. It’s hard to know how colleges will interpret the decision not to submit scores. Some will ignore it, but others will conclude that you wouldn’t have scored very well and will hold it against you. If you ask admissions officers, they’ll always say that submitting scores is completely up to you. But that’s what they have to say, because they’re not really “test-optional” if there’s a penalty for not submitting scores. But is their answer true, and does it make sense?

Think about it: if good scores indicate that you’re ready for college, and a bad score would hurt you, wouldn’t the decision not to submit scores suggest that you didn’t do well, or didn’t think you could get a good score? And wouldn’t that be evidence that you might not be ready for college work? If colleges are thinking this way (and there’s evidence that some of them do), students should at least investigate the tests and see if they can earn a score that will help them.

How do I get started with the SAT or ACT?

First, figure out if the SAT or ACT is better for you. Either is fine. Colleges don’t “prefer” one or the other. Take a practice test in each (make sure that it’s an official one) and then analyze your results to make a decision. Then pick a test date that allows you enough time to study and practice. Finally, figure out how to get advice. Self-study is cheaper but not really personalized. Classes give you lots of time with a teacher, but you’ll be in a class with others and the schedule might not always work for you. Private tutoring is the most expensive per hour, but you can often spend less time because it’s all about you and your needs.

If you’re having trouble finding official practice tests, let me know and I’ll help you out. And please reach out if you have any questions. No charge or obligation.

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