Latest Changes to the ACT, SAT, and Test Optional Colleges

With so much in the news about changes to college testing and admissions, I have heard the same questions from many clients. I wanted to pass along the very latest and best information that I have about the SAT, ACT, and test optional policies.

How have the ACT and SAT changed their upcoming dates?

• ACT just announced that they will have test dates on June 13th and July 18th. If there is a need to move the test date because of local health conditions, the June test would be moved to June 20th and the July test would be moved to July 25th. Despite much speculation that the summer ACT tests would be cancelled, they are on track to go ahead.

• SAT announced that they are cancelling the upcoming June SAT date, but will have a total of 5 national test dates for the fall with sufficient capacity to test all students who wish to do so. There will be an SAT each month starting in August. Additionally, the in-school SAT that was cancelled in the spring will be offered in the fall.

What if the country is still locked down in the fall and it is unsafe to take the SAT and ACT in person?

• Both SAT and ACT will make online, at-home versions of their tests available this fall should it be necessary. At-home tests have already been made for the GRE, GMAT, SSAT, LSAT, and AP exams. Should they make the online tests available, I believe they would simply keep the test as it is in its current format, but have virtual proctoring, test session recording through a computer’s camera, and browser lockdown to prevent cheating. More details about the precise format of the online tests will be forthcoming.

I have heard that many colleges are going “test optional,” and that my child now has the option to not submit SAT and ACT scores. Does this mean I don’t need to have my child take the SAT and ACT?

• “Test optional” does not mean “test blind”—if you can take the ACT and SAT to improve your application, it is definitely in your interest to do so even for test optional schools. Only 21% of all the 5,300 U.S. colleges/universities are test optional, and only 10% of the top 20 nationally-ranked universities (U.S. News & World Report ranking) are test optional.

• Only two schools in the United States, Hampshire College and Northern Illinois University are test-blind—they will not consider ACT and SAT test scores in any way. All other colleges in the country will consider test scores when making admissions decisions.

• The University of Chicago, the most highly-ranked test optional University, actually saw its admissions rate decline to 6% and its average SAT scores improve after going test optional. Their admissions website encourages “students to take standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, and to share your scores with us if you think that they are reflective of your ability and potential.” Only about 10-15% of University of Chicago applicants choose to not submit their test scores. https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/apply/first-year-applicants

• For the University of California system, temporarily being test optional this year “does not lower the bar for admission, but accommodates the real barriers students have faced as tests have been cancelled and classes have moved to Pass/No Pass grading. Admissions to UC campuses is highly sought after and will continue to be just as competitive.” Submitting test scores can support students’ “statewide UC eligibility, application for certain scholarships, and help them fulfill some University graduation requirements.” https://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/response-covid-19.html

• If you are able to take the SAT and ACT, do so early and often.

o Grades may hold less weight in admissions decisions than in previous years since many high schools are instituting “pass/fail” or no grading for the 2020 spring semester.

o Students who would traditionally have impressive extracurricular accomplishments from the spring and summer will not be able to showcase their talents as they normally would.

o Students may be unable to make college visits to demonstrate interest in schools, and do in-person interviews.

o Accurate letters of recommendation may be more difficult to obtain since letter writers may not have the same level of personal contact with students that they normally would.

o As always, the more objective information you can provide to a college about your solid academic qualifications, the better your chances of admission. Taking the SAT and ACT is one of the easiest ways to make this happen.

–Brian Stewart

What Colleges Want in an Essay

The common app will be open for submissions in just a few weeks. Many students’ goal is to be relatively done with applications on August 1st when it opens. This allows students to have a (fairly) stress free senior year without worrying about applications on top of classes, sports, and work. To aid with this, the common app publishes their essay topics well in advance so that students can take advantage of the summer months and knock out the bulk of their essays. Here are the seven prompts for this year:

    1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
    2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
    3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
    4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
    5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
    6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
    7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Students often see these prompts and agonize how to pick one. This approach is entirely backwards! Instead of picking the prompt first, notice how incredibly broad they are! Figure out what you want to talk about and then find a prompt that fits it! In order to find what you would like to write about ask yourself some questions:

  1. What experiences have I had that are unique?
  2. What makes me different from my peers?
  3. When was a time that I worked hard to overcome a challenge?
  4. How would I describe myself in just a few words.

You should not be asking “what do colleges want to see?” This attitude of pandering to the colleges is bad for a number of reasons:

First, it will drive you crazy trying to figure what colleges want, which will result in poor or generic writing. Every sentence and word will sound like a humble brag as you try to spin a story that you think they will find amazing. While you want to show yourself in a good light, remember that no one is perfect! Pick something to write about that you’re confident in and that will shine through.

Second, every college is looking for something slightly different every year. One year at one school your experience as an oboe player in the national youth symphony may make you a top candidate. At another school or another year, they may have 5 wonderful oboe players on campus already. What colleges are “looking for” is often different year to year and campus to campus as colleges try to create a diverse student body. Every admissions department is different and puts emphasis on different things in their selection process.

Third, this may be the most important one. If you pretend to be someone you aren’t to get into a college there is a good chance the real you won’t be happy when you get there. Remember, colleges want to get you know you to see if you would be a good fit, not just academically, but personally. Think about it as a relationship: if you lie about who you are to the person you’re dating is your relationship going to be in good shape when you finally have to be yourself? This essay and your application are kind of like a first date- it’s not a good idea to air all your dirty laundry, but if you don’t act like yourself, there is a good chance you won’t be happy in the relationship down the road.

 

Put all of this together and the best advice a student can hear is this: be yourself. In your essay, try to be true to who you are. Ask your parents and friends what they think the best thing about you is. Do some self-reflection. You can’t control what the colleges want, what they think, or who they choose. You can control the portrait you paint of yourself. Make it a good one- put yourself in a flattering light, get the right angle, tell the right story, but leave the puppy filter and the photoshop for another day.

What Colleges Want: Essays

Yep, it’s that time of year! Requests for essay help are flooding in! As students sit down to write their college essay their primary question is generally “what do colleges want” or maybe “what can I say to make colleges want me”. This mindset is one of the biggest mistakes that students make as they carefully craft their essays.  Students should keep in mind that the essay is really just the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae of their application (shout out to At the Core for this awesome metaphor).  In other words, a lot of other things- GPA, test scores, class rigor- are more important. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t work hard on your essay, but rather I’m pointing out that the schools you’re applying to already know exactly how academically gifted you are; don’t try to blow them away by sounding like a college professor!

In addition to thesaurus writing, many essays show up on my desk looking like the student wrote them with a crown on their heads. Students try to sound like they are enlightened, like their life experiences have made them better than every other candidate. Scores of essays talk about experiences that made students want to help humanity, tons of essays discuss the student’s experiences with people less fortunate, boat loads of essays loft the student up to make it seem like they are the best thing since sliced break. Maybe they are. However, when a reader has read 500 essays just like that it starts to get old. Not every one of those people can possibly be as amazing as they say. So one essay about volunteering at a soup kitchen blends into the next about working with low income children blends into another about a mission trip to a third world country. It all sounds the same eventually and it all sounds disingenuous.

By now you’re probably despairing that the experience you wanted to write your essay about won’t work. Here is the trick though. You can write about anything- anything at all. If that trip to a poverty stricken country really changed your life then write about it, but stop thinking about what colleges want to hear and start thinking instead about what you want to say. This is the one chance that you have to show colleges something that isn’t on your application somewhere else.  If you don’t have a life changing experience that’s okay! Students can write about small things that show who they are. One essay I read was about a young man who grew strawberries in his locker. It didn’t change the world; in fact, all it did was give him a few strawberries. But it allowed him to show who he was: a creative young man, willing to put in some work in order to try something new for little reward.  Who wouldn’t want that kind of person around?

We’re all amazing people. There are very few students around who  don’t want to help the world. Focus instead on what makes you unique, on what you’ll bring to the college, on something that shows who you are. Stop trying to be more than yourself. Just do you; it’s enough

What Colleges Want

College application season is well underway. Juniors are starting to put together lists and seniors are filling out the common app, getting letters of recommendation, and writing essays. Often it seems that all students do during the first half of senior year is think about what colleges want and how to give them what they want. However, by senior year it’s often too late to really change much.  They should have started thinking about it Freshman year! So here are some of the main things that colleges are looking for. Keep in mind that every college is different but in general here are the top three things that colleges consider in making admissions decisions.

  1. High GPA
    Yes, colleges like to see a high GPA. In fact, it’s the number one thing most colleges look at. What students often don’t realize though is that colleges want to see good grades in challenging classes. What does this mean? It means that a 4.0 without a single honors or AP course isn’t going to mean the same as a 3.8 on a loaded schedule. Start challenging yourself a little each year so that by senior year you have courses that college like to see! After all, they don’t want people who take the easy way out! If you go to a school that doesn’t offer many challenging courses don’t panic. I grew up in a tiny town in a school that offered no honors courses and only three AP classes. Colleges get this information about your school along with your application. They will take into account the fact that you may not have had the same resources that other students had! You may also be able to take college classes online or through a local community college during high school! Such programs also show initiative and prove to colleges that you aren’t scared of hard work.
  2. Standardized test scores
    Who isn’t worried about standardized tests (besides the kids who got perfect scores)? Standardized test scores don’t mean as much as you think they do. They are a solid second priority to most colleges. In fact, there are almost 1000 colleges in the U.S. that don’t require students to send in scores at all! (Check out fairtest.org).  Keep in mind though that if you choose not to send in your scores everything else becomes more important! If you are sending in scores remember that the national average on the ACT was just 20.8 in 2016. That probably seems terribly low. Remember that only people who get really good scores brag about their scores. There are way more 20s out there than 30s! Look at the averages for the schools you want to go to. You might be surprised! Also, keep in mind that 50 percent of students are below the average ACT at any given college. The averages are not set cut off points.
  3. Everything else
    Extra-curricular activities, letters of recommendation, and essays all fall into this category. Different colleges weigh them differently. This is where you get to show the schools who you really are. The key here is not to be a Jack of all trades but rather to actually care and commit to a few things throughout your high school career. Having 50 activities that you attend once a month is not impressive. Having 5 activities that you truly dedicate yourself to and have leadership positions in is much more attractive. Remember, colleges are looking for students who will bring dedication to campus! In the same way, letters of recommendation should come from people who can show your best traits. Ten generic letters from people who barely know you would not be as impressive as one genuine letter from a teacher who has been actively engaged in your education and knows you as a person!

Most of all don’t wait until your senior year to start thinking about college! Whatever grade you’re in in high school set forth a deliberate plan to put yourself into a good position when you find yourself filling out those applications.
I hope you’ve found this information helpful! Please feel free to share!