July 19, 2020

How has COVID-19 affected the role of standardized tests in college admissions?

It’s hard enough to prepare and sit for standardized tests that might make the difference between getting accepted to or rejected from college. With the added complication of COVID-19, even finding a venue to take these tests has become a virtual nightmare. Colleges and universities have had to take this issue into consideration as they move forward with admissions policies for rising high school seniors.

As more ACT and SAT test sites become unavailable either because of local spiking or efforts to do safe distancing, students have fewer opportunities to take tests either for the first time or to repeat in order to do better. The ACT has rescinded opportunities for students who signed up and paid for the test, sometimes within days of the upcoming test date. Even as recently as July 18, students who were fortunate enough to snap up a test date had to make a stressful trip out of their local area—sometimes even out of state—to sit for a test. 

Test-blind, test-optional or tests required?

With more students applying Early Decision or Early Action, with a deadline of November 1,2020, the anxiety is mounting. In response, many colleges and universities have made these tests optional for submission for the upcoming application year; others have chosen to do so for several years, and even a few have joined the growing numbers of colleges and universities that will not require the tests at all in the future.

Some schools are “test-blind”—that is, they don’t consider the SAT or ACT in their admissions process at all. Hampshire College pioneered this concept in 2014.The University of New England, Catholic University, the New School, Cal Tech, and Cal Poly are currently also test-blind.

Even Ivy League schools have decided to go test-optional for this year’s applicants, and recently, Princeton University posted  plans to “pause” the testing requirement for 2020-2021 in addition to offering only one application submission deadline: January 1, 2021. 

However, a number of high-profile schools currently continue to require these tests for submission of applications including the Universities of Colorado, Maryland, and Michigan. While private colleges and universities may make independent decisions, it’s more complicated for schools within a state system. For example, all 12 public universities in the state of Florida await the decision of the Board of Governors to make a determination. On the other hand,  the California State Board of Regents dropped  the SAT and ACT as requirements for admission in the entire UC system for this year, with a follow-up plan to put in place for future years. 

Still, “test-optional” has many nuances: Many schools will encourage students who have competitive scores that fall into or above the mid-range of accepted applicants to submit them. Others indicate that high scores may still have an impact on merit awards or honors programs. Rising high school juniors have been forewarned to consider planning for these tests much earlier than they originally might have.

How will colleges and universities evaluate candidates this year?

According to the Independent Educational Consultants Association, grades and standardized test scores have traditionally ranked second and third in a list of criteria for acceptance to colleges and universities. This year will be quite different. In addition to  re-evaluating the role of test scores, admissions officers are musing about the accuracy of last spring semester’s high school GPAs as well as the effect of unfinished sports seasons, truncated activities, and lost summer opportunities.

An optional “COVID-19” essay will be offered in the Common Application as well as by individual schools in their supplements for students to explain how they dealt with these lost opportunities.

This year, “holistic” has become a key term in the evaluation of candidates for the Class of 2025. Other considerations like rigor of the curriculum, passionate involvement in meaningful activities, intellectual curiosity and character will be even more pivotal in the review process. Recommendations written by counselors, teachers and “other recommenders” like coaches or employers may have more of an impact. Leadership roles as well as commitment to academics, service and activities will be valued.

Personal statements and supplemental essays will most likely play an even greater role in the process for insight into the student’s character, interests and values; schools like the University of Wisconsin and the University of Miami have even added supplemental essays to the application. Essays about why a student wants to attend a particular university, study a particular field, or aim for a particular degree will be crucial. Demonstrated interest will be determined by participation in virtual tours, information sessions and other online opportunities offered by the colleges and universities. 

Where to find the most up-to-date information on testing policies?

In addition to statements on the websites of individual colleges and universities, the Common Application provides a Requirements Grid of its approximately 900 members. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing lists the test-optional policies of over 1250 colleges and universities for 2021. Applerouth, a nationwide test prep and tutoring service, also maintains a continuously updated listing of colleges and universities that have changed their testing policies. 


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