If there was one silver lining in the confusing landscape of higher education during the COVID-19 crisis, it was colleges offering students the choice to opt out of standardized testing, like the SAT and ACT.
This change had already been brewing prior to the pandemic, with some selective universities making standardized testing scores optional. One of the most notable was the University of Chicago, which dropped its SAT requirement in 2018.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to many schools dropping requirements for standardized testing, due, in part, to the lack of testing facilities for students. But even as the world has returned to normal, some colleges have continued to make standardized testing optional for incoming applicants.
Standardized testing has long been controversial, in part because it may shift favor toward affluent applicants who can afford test preparation courses, or who go to well-funded public schools or private schools that can teach test-taking skills. In this way, critics of standardized testing say that standardized testing doesn’t measure aptitude; it merely measures a student’s ability to take a test.
And while seeing that a school is test optional may make some students breathe a sigh of relief, it can lead to confusion for many applicants, especially those who are strong test-takers. Understanding how colleges may use these scores can help you make the decision as to whether to include them in your application package.
Test Optional Versus Test Blind
To assess how a university will potentially use test scores, it’s helpful to see whether the school is test optional or test blind.
The school doesn’t require standardized test scores, but if they’re submitted, they will be evaluated alongside the application package.
The school does not require standardized testing. If a student submits standardized test scores, they will not be looked at or evaluated by the institution.
The difference in these definitions can be helpful to determine whether or not to submit test scores. If the school you apply to is test blind, then sending your scores will not matter. But if the school is test optional, then some applicants may consider sending their test scores if they performed well.
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Standardized Testing Can Give Students Options
Students who aren’t sure of where they want to apply, or who are interested in a wide range of potential options, may consider opting in to standardized testing. Also consider that some private scholarships may use standardized testing as one method of evaluation.
As you consider your high school and college career, it can be helpful to ask the following questions:
• What does my school counselor think about opting out of testing?
• How do I perform on testing? Does testing cause me significant anxiety, or is it something that I can excel in with relatively minimal stress?
• Do I plan to apply for college scholarships?
• Do I know which schools I want to apply to? You may not have the answer yet depending on which stage of the college search you’re in, but looking at a few dream or reach school admission requirements can be helpful to assess whether or not you’ll likely need standardized testing.
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Know the Test Calendar
For some students, standardized testing for higher education begins with the PSAT/NMSQT. Also known as the PSAT 10. This test assesses “readiness for college” and may be used for scholarship eligibility. This test is also the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship. While it’s commonly taken in tenth or eleventh grade, some middle-schoolers may also take the PSAT 8/9 both for practice and for high school eligibility.
The PSAT does not count toward college admission and colleges will not see a student’s results. That’s why the PSAT can be a helpful first step in assessing how you perform on a standardized test, pinpoint any areas that may need work, and create a plan for the next steps.
Both the ACT and SAT are offered about seven times a year in the United States. Some students take these standardized tests in the spring of their junior year and then retake them in the fall of their senior year. But the right cadence is dependent on a student’s unique profile. For some students, taking the standardized tests just once is enough. Others like to use the first test as a benchmark, then spend the summer studying or taking a prep course before taking the test a second time.
Keep in mind too, that some colleges that consider standardized test scores will allow students to submit only their highest scores. Other schools will look at all of a student’s scores. Knowing how your potential schools will consider standardized test scores can also help you assess how many times you want to take the test.
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What Are Alternatives to Standardized Testing?
Some students worry that their applications may be viewed less competitively if they opt out of standardized testing. But it’s important to remember that for many admissions offices, evaluating applications is an art — not a science. Reading through admission requirements can give you a sense of what the university expects from applicants. Some public institutions may have specific numbers that students need to meet to be guaranteed admission. But for many schools, admission is dependent on multiple factors including:
• Range and breadth of high school courses taken
• Teacher recommendations
• Extracurricular activities
• College interview
• Other factors, which may include state residency, alumni parents, extracurricular activities, or majors planned to pursue in college
• Standardized tests
In short, standardized tests are generally one small part of an admissions package. Talking with a college counselor can help students maximize all other parts of their application for competitive consideration.
Recommended: Do Your SAT Scores Really Matter for College?
Don’t Overlook How You’ll Pay for College
In the leadup to developing a competitive application, it can be easy to overlook the question of how to pay for college. It’s never too early to begin researching methods of payment. This may include:
• Support from parents and family members
• A student’s own savings
• Private scholarships
• Federal financial aid including; work-study, scholarships, grants for college, and federal student loans
• Private student loans
While private student loans can help students fill the gap in how they plan to pay for college, they’re generally used as a last resort because they lack borrower protections offered by federal student loans. But, when students don’t receive enough federal aid to pay for college, private student loans can be one option worth considering.
Students may also look at the tuition cost as they are building the list of colleges they plan on applying to. In general, in-state public universities may be less expensive than private universities, but some private universities have generous financial aid for people who meet certain requirements. Having an understanding of the potential financial commitment alongside the application and admissions process can help students build a clear perspective on how much college will cost depending on where they get accepted.
💡 Quick Tip: Even if you don’t think you qualify for financial aid, you should fill out the FAFSA form. Many schools require it for merit-based scholarships, too. You can submit it as early as Oct. 1.
The college admissions process can be intense, and standardized tests are only one part of the puzzle. Fortunately, you can minimize stress by taking your time, doing research, and asking questions early. Carefully considering where you want to go to school, how you’ll pay for it, and what will make the experience successful for you can help you choose the school that is the right fit for you.
If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.
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