High school juniors have standardized testing on their minds, with all of the accompanying questions:
- When should I test?
- Should I take the SAT or ACT?
- Should I take these tests with the essay/writing section?
- Should I take SAT Subject Tests and, if so, which ones?
Rarely do people ask me if their child should test at all. In fact, an increasing number of “test-optional” schools are liberalizing or even waiving their standardized testing requirements completely. “Test-optional” schools include some of the most selective colleges and universities in the country (universities, like Brandeis and Wesleyan, and small liberal arts colleges like Bryn Mawr, Connecticut College, Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and Trinity). In a previous post, I shared a spreadsheet that lists testing policies and requirements for 75 colleges and universities around the country. Of those 75 schools, 22 offer test-optional policies (and those 22 are just a random sample, not an exhaustive list). Standardized testing has become such an engrained part of our college admissions culture that families and high schools are sometimes reluctant to let go of it; however, eliminating the standardized testing burden for your child could result in significant benefits.
Why skip standardized testing?
Standardized testing, under the best of circumstances, takes time and imposes stress. Both the SAT and the ACT assess not just your knowledge and skill set, but your ability to apply them under pressure and with significant time constraints. For some students, the testing experience could push their stress beyond a tolerable level. In so doing, it could exact an opportunity cost that they cannot afford. The amount of time and energy necessary to get results that make a positive difference at the schools that require testing could sideline other things that, arguably, take on greater importance, both in the college admissions process and in life (academics, leadership experiences, etc.). There is also the very real possibility that, having forfeited time on academics in order to prepare for standardized testing, both test scores and grades end up falling short. When it comes to standardized testing, you really have to know your kid. For some young people, realizing that they don’t have to take the SAT or ACT could prove liberating.
How do we decide whether to test?
For starters, download the spreadsheet from my previous post and sort for the letter “N” in the first column. This sort will give you the 22 schools that do not require the SAT or ACT for admission. Start researching these 22 schools. Let’s say you come up with eight that look good. For each of those eight, look at other schools that resemble them (you can sometimes look at athletic rivals to identify comparable schools). For example, Franklin and Marshall College makes me think of Muhlenberg, which it turns out also has a test-optional policy. Lewis and Clark would lead me to Whittier, yet another test-optional choice. You can also consult the Fairtest website (as of Fall 2018, their test-optional list exceeded 900 schools). See if you can put together a list of 15-20 test-optional schools that you and your child feel excited about and that represent a range of reach, target, and safety schools (I will explore in an upcoming post how to sort schools into each one of these three categories for your child). Having that list in hand means you have effectively eliminated the need for the SAT or ACT for your child.
What if my child’s college counselor thinks we are making a mistake?
As I mentioned earlier, standardized testing represents one of the most engrained aspects of the college admissions process and some people have trouble letting go of it: “You might discover too late that a school that your child really likes requires the SAT or ACT — then what?!” In fact, lots of schools out there would probably make your child happy. Navigating this process successfully means making informed and strategic choices that will land your child at one of those places. Nothing better exemplifies the need to make these kinds of choices than standardized testing. Walking into the college counselor’s office with a list of schools that interest your child and that offer test-optional policies will facilitate the conversation; however, if you still encounter resistance to the test-optional approach, propose putting the testing on hold until fall of senior year. You will have your child’s final college list in hand by that time and can determine whether or not the testing is necessary. If it is, your child will have plenty of time to study for a couple of months and take the SAT or ACT before application deadlines.