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To Test, Or Not To Test?

In a land, devastated by famine and drought, shimmering pools of water and images of plenty tempted travelers and visitors. Were these hallucinations? Oh dear reader, these visions are inspired by the financial waves crashing on colleges – I was using a metaphor for the feast and famine landscape higher education institutions are facing thanks to the pandemic. Namely – some schools are financially “feasting” while others are facing enormous revenue shortfalls. Not all colleges and universities are in the same boat!


Consider this. The Wall Street Journal recently stated, “Binding early decision applications rose by 22% at Brown University, 23% at the University of Pennsylvania, 29% at Dartmouth College, and 49% at Columbia University. At Yale University and Harvard University, applications under the restrictive early-action option jumped by about 38% and 57%, respectively.”


Chart showing increase in number of college applications


Outcomes from Early Applications from the Class of 2021


The pandemic accelerated the shift in testing policy, leading to drastic changes in the college admissions landscape. In just a few weeks in the spring of 2020, over 95% of selective four-year colleges and universities announced their decisions to be test-optional for 2020-2021. Many seniors did not have an opportunity to take the SAT or ACT in 2020 before their application deadlines. Those who had planned for testing early (such as our Insight students) had the option to choose to submit their scores. With the barrier of testing removed for many students, they suddenly imagined the possibility of an acceptance offer from a school that might have been a dream previously.


This year is pivotal as students who are disadvantaged or discouraged by testing will have more possibilities than ever before. In fact, many highly selective schools such as Amherst, Boston College, Colgate, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, UPenn, Rice, UVA, and Williams have recently extended their temporary policies to 2021-2022 application cycle; most others are expected to follow suit by spring.


A word of caution before you decide that the SAT or ACT will be gone forever – it is important to point out the wording of these testing policy announcements for additional insight into the school’s attitude toward testing. For example, Brown’s announcement started with “the extraordinary circumstances that continue to face students this year.” Stanford’s note in responding to Covid on standardized testing outlined that “if you have already taken the ACT or SAT…, then you are welcome to self-report them.” And Princeton’s statement included its process for determining academic rigor. “When considered in context and in conjunction with other academic factors, testing such as the SAT or the ACT can be very helpful in assessing a student’s preparation for Princeton’s curriculum.”


Without the barrier of test scores, many colleges are seeing surges in number of applications this year, as we saw with the Wall Street Journal article. Harvard saw applications rise by 42% overall and the University of California system by 16%. However, admissions offices are also delaying decision releasing date or making more use of wait lists due to the volume of applications. Overall, many top colleges showed a decrease in acceptance in the early admissions stage.


Chart showing drop in acceptance rate in popular colleges



Class of 2022: Keeping Your Options Open in a Competitive Context

There are so many colleges that changed their policies in light of the pandemic – you can read our very comprehensive and helpful list of test-optional schools here – that it becomes difficult to sift through the actual changes specific colleges make, the changes that College Board or ACT make, and the realities that colleges face – to figure out what you yourself want to do!!! Jeff Selingo tweeted about the practical limitations that admissions offices face – they simply cannot “add more days to the reading calendar,” which is why standardized tests are still useful as a “governor on apps.” If you were managing an admissions office, would you use tools that helped you make your work more efficient? Probably.

And something for applicants to consider is the behavior of one’s classmates – do you think others in your graduating class will skip the opportunity to take these tests? All things being equal, students who have scores to report retain a potential advantage over those who don’t. Having the option to send scores—to all colleges, to some colleges, or to no colleges—is a path we can help you plan.

As we continue to carefully monitor trends, we will continue to analyze the data available to us and share our insights on the impact of flexible testing policies. We’ve already seen that a relaxed testing policy does not make a highly selective school less competitive. In reality, it can boost a college’s desirability, continuing to limit the available spots and demand for them. Universities that were already in demand reached record high levels of interest in 2020, especially in their early application rounds, resulting in record low early admit rates.


Wish to improve your test scores? Check out Insight’s upcoming SAT / ACT classes here.


In the coming years, we will see if applicant and admission profiles at competitive colleges alter and what role testing policies have in that change. Please continue to follow Insight Education through social media as we update you on the latest in college admissions or schedule a 1-hour college planning session with our experienced counselors to personalize your academic and testing strategies. 


Read more: Ready, Set, Take the Test!

Written by Meilin Obinata

This article’s main contributor is Insight Senior College Admissions Counselor Meilin Obinata.

Meilin Obinata is a Senior College Counselor who enjoys learning from her students. She believes education is a creative endeavor and creates a space that allows students to explore new ideas. As a Bay Area native who grew up in Santa Cruz, she is familiar with the local schools. Read her full bio here.

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