Do You Still Need to Take the SAT/ACT?

You’ve already heard, right?

More and more colleges are doing away with the SAT/ACT requirement, and the list of test-optional schools is growing with about 1,100 universities/colleges currently.

The college landscape has become almost unrecognizable in these 3 last months alone as we’re beginning to see the effects of the coronavirus.

Virtually all American colleges and universities have become SAT/ACT test-optional for at least the upcoming round of admissions (rising seniors) because the Collegeboard and ACT Inc. have been unable to even offer testing sites! March, May, and June tests were largely cancelled, and it’s been supremely difficult to secure yourself a spot for the upcoming August, September, and October SATs.

A few days ago, I reported on the implications of the University of California (UC system) transitioning first from SAT/ACT test-optional to eventually SAT/ACT test-blind. If you missed my analysis about why that’s actually a BAD thing for students, you can check out my article here:

But today, I want to answer the biggest question right now: “Do I still need to take the SAT/ACT anymore?”

The short answer is YES, you should absolutely take the SAT/ACT because not submitting a score will make it HARDER for you to get accepted by your dream college. Read on to understand why that is.

Why Colleges Became Test-Optional

The move to become test-optional is largely to benefit the colleges themselves.

Essentially, colleges hope to appear more compassionate towards students, attract more applications and thus collect more fees, lower their acceptance percentage in order to increase perceived prestige, and boast of a higher average SAT/ACT score, since only top-scoring students would submit a score.

When you’re trying to understand how this confusing college admissions process all works, remember this: Colleges are like businesses! It doesn’t matter how noble their mission statement is; colleges ultimately care most about improving their own prestige/ranking, collecting as much money as possible, and attracting the best students.

From that perspective, it’s clear that going test-optional is a move meant to benefit the colleges themselves, not students.

Why You Should Reconsider Rejoicing

Why are so many people’s initial gut reaction about getting rid of these tests is pure joy?

It’s because acing these tests is NOT EASY.

Test prep firms dull the pain by teaching you strategies that make your studying more effective, just like anesthesia makes getting your wisdom teeth pulled more bearable. But neither the best SAT/ACT program nor the best sedation can make the process truly pleasant. Yet both are allowing you to receive something valuable in the long run, which is why we endure the short-term pain.

However, just imagining the stress, time, and effort of studying for the SAT/ACT is the stuff of nightmares. So hearing the news suddenly declaring the end of the SAT/ACT sounds like music to your ears.

No more Saturdays crammed into a test prep classroom taking practice tests or listening to droning lectures on boring subjects.

No more Saturday mornings waking up early to take a 4.5 hour test that feels like it will determine your future.

No student wakes up thinking, “Geez, I really hope I get to study for these exciting and fascinating topics for the SAT/ACT today!”

So, you’re excited to have your life back, right? More time for school work, which is already overwhelming. More time for clubs, volunteering, sports, or other extracurriculars. More time for friends and family. Heck, more time for sleep!

But what if I told you that eliminating the SAT/ACT actually means you’d need to excel even MORE in school and achieve even MORE with your extracurriculars? And doing those things would take 10 times more time and effort than acing the SAT/ACT? What if I showed you that getting rid of these tests LOWERED your chances at getting into your dream college because the competitiveness just shot way up?

Seems counterintuitive, but let me explain what’s happening.

Test-Optional Leads to Higher SAT/ACT Scores, Making it Harder to Stand Out

When a school becomes SAT/ACT test-optional, it means only the self-selected strong scorers are going to submit their scores. Otherwise, why submit a low score when it would just confirm you’re academically weak? That means the average SAT/ACT score is going to go UP, so to stand out in a HIGHER performing field, you’d need to score EVEN HIGHER than before. That means you need to put in MORE effort and time to study.

When everyone applying was required to submit an SAT/ACT score, mountains of low scores were showing up. The average SAT score was around 1060 out of 1600. The average ACT score was around a 21 out of 36. That means if you scored a 1300 or 1400 on the SAT (or 28 to 31 on the ACT), you’d look pretty strong compared to the vast majority of other students!

Now imagine all those low scores are just suddenly gone. Now most students who choose to submit are getting 1400+ SAT or 31+ ACT scores. Suddenly, your 1400 SAT score doesn’t look so great when there’s a dramatically HIGHER percentage of students getting 1400+ or even 1500+! 1400 used to be 94% percentile of students, but now it will suddenly become the bottom 10 or 20%! To stand a chance, you need to score high 1400s or even break 1500 now.

To make matters worse, it becomes exponentially difficult to improve your score as you approach a perfect score. Improving from 1400 to 1500 (only a 100-point gain) is actually FAR HARDER than improving from 1000 to 1300 (a massive 300-points gain), typically 3-5x harder.

Not Submitting a Score Creates Doubt About Your Academic Strength

At this point, you might be thinking, “Well then, forget it! I just won’t take the SAT/ACT, since it’s optional.” But if you don’t take it, you’re going to automatically trigger the natural human bias.

Admission officers are humans, so not seeing an SAT/ACT score would make them curious why you didn’t submit. Their first thought is going to be maybe you weren’t able to score well, otherwise you would have submitted.

It’s like someone pleading the Fifth (the right to remain silent) when accused of a crime. If someone refuses to say something to defend himself, the most common natural reaction is to feel he’s more likely to be guilty than not. Do you really want admission officers to have doubts about your academic abilities? No!

It’s only after this natural negative reaction that the admission officers will try to reason with themselves as instructed by their colleges to give the benefit of the doubt. Try to believe that maybe this student didn’t have the resources to prepare or maybe he wanted to spend his time doing better in school or on his extracurriculars. Psychologically, giving the benefit of the doubt is exceedingly difficult to do!

Acing the SAT/ACT is Far Easier and Faster Than Improving Your Extracurriculars

There’s nothing with a higher ROI (return on investment) per hour than preparing for the SAT/ACT. When you submit an SAT/ACT score, it’s weighted as much as two full years of your GPA. Just imagine how much effort two years takes (ALL of your classes in two years combined) — probably 2,000 to 3,000 hours.

Acing the SAT/ACT takes a tiny fraction of that time, yet it’s worth the same. Even 50 hours would create an incredible improvement in your score. Give it 100 hours with the right guidance and you can be completely done with the SAT/ACT!

If you don’t submit an SAT/ACT score, then your GPA and extracurriculars become some of the BIGGEST remaining factors colleges can judge you on. Since you saved yourself so much time NOT preparing for the SAT/ACT, colleges now expect even GREATER achievements in school and in your activities.

But the 100 hours (often less) it would have taken to dramatically increase your SAT/ACT barely makes a dent in your extracurriculars. Is 100 more hours of volunteering, sports practice, or band rehearsal (when you already do these things for hundreds or thousands of hours) going to make you as impressive or more impressive than a 200+ point SAT gain or 4+ point ACT gain?

See, colleges don’t award you much credit for doing MORE hours of a basic activity like picking up trash, organizing school rallies/dances, playing basketball, or spending time with the elderly at a hospital. Colleges award you for doing something more IMPRESSIVE, which doesn’t necessarily mean more time.

The vast majority of students can improve their SAT/ACT score far more easily (and in far less time) than they can improve their extracurriculars. Why? Because studying is familiar and the results are objective. Studying for school is probably your #1 thing you’ve done in your life, so you’re already familiar with studying. But being a real leader, creating something truly innovative, or significantly impacting the community? Now those are hard to do and require far more time and effort.

That’s why it’s EXTREMELY RARE for a student to achieve top extracurriculars; it takes expanding your comfort zone and trying things with a high chance of failure, which are really just learning experiences. But it’s far easier to just buckle down and study for the SAT/ACT.

I mean, what do you think is easier? Becoming the next Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX, Paypal), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Michael Phelps (Olympic swimmer), or Kobe Bryant (NBA superstar) or earning a strong SAT/ACT score?

Okay, you don’t need to rival the world’s top performers to get into a top college, but you’d still need to achieve something actually notable with your activities. I’m willing to bet that acing the SAT/ACT would be easier for you. And you can do so in far less time.

What It REALLY Takes to Improve Your Extracurriculars

When I advise students to pursue an extracurricular monument/passion project, many students don’t even know how to envision an impressive project. Their ideas are tiny — start a fundraiser and collect canned food, tutor low-income students in basic math or reading skills, or put on a concert for some hospital patients.

Don’t get me wrong; those are appreciated, but they aren’t impressive because they’re just not that hard to do!

When I suggest more impressive and bigger project ideas, many students initially react with fear, intimidated at the magnitude of what they’d need to accomplish to actually stand out. The goal becomes so big that they become too paralyzed to even begin, so they do nothing and bury their heads in the sand. They return to what’s comfortable — studying in school and doing the typical low-impact activities.

By the way, the best strategy to avoid paralysis or fear of failure is to set smaller, specific, and tangible goals. Just focus on the step immediately in front of you and take that small action, rather than focusing on the destination a thousand steps in the future. By breaking down the project into small, manageable tasks, I train my students to take consistent action.

Suddenly, a year or two later, they’re amazed how they ever achieved so much. I’ll ask them if they could have imagined reaching here a year or two ago, and none of them ever can because they’ve accomplished so much. And that’s why their monument projects and activities are truly impressive.

Even if your peers heard about what you’re doing, they will feel too far behind that they won’t even try to catch up, so they return to the things we know DON’T make them stand out, such as studying and low-impact activities.

In short, impressive extracurriculars require significantly more time, effort, motivation, and talent than earning an impressive SAT/ACT score. And without submitting a score, you better believe your extracurriculars, along with your personal statement and college essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, and other subjective factors are going to be judged far more harshly — because colleges expect MORE in those areas if you don’t show an SAT/ACT score.

For more on achieving world-class extracurriculars, check out my ultimate guide on that topic.

Test-Optional Means More Students Apply, Increasing Your Competition

When a school becomes test-optional, far MORE students will apply simply because it’s easier to when there are fewer requirements. That means you’d be competing against thousands of ADDITIONAL students, making your chances of standing out even slimmer! Imagine that, right? The easiest and fastest way to stand out among these extra competitors is to submit a great SAT/ACT score, helping you rise to the top.

Currently, of the 1,100 or so universities/colleges that don’t require the SAT/ACT, only 232 of them are actually test-blind, meaning they won’t consider your score at all. And these 232 colleges are typically less selective colleges or colleges that accept virtually everyone who applies. That’s a huge indicator that test-optional schools in general PREFER students show an SAT/ACT score, even if they won’t admit so publicly in order not to appear tone-deaf. In reality, applications without a score will NOT be treated equally to applicants with a score.

It’s Far Easier to Get in With “High GPA/SAT/ACT + Weak Activities” Than “Strong Activities + Weak GPA/SAT/ACT”

Over the last 12 years that I’ve been mentoring students to get into their dream colleges, I’ve personally helped dozens and dozens of students with a strong GPA and high SAT/ACT score but absolutely mediocre or even weak extracurriculars get admitted into the top UC schools (Berkeley and UCLA) and even some Ivy League schools (Cornell and UPenn).

They were able to get in because of their stellar academics. With some strategic positioning and insightful storytelling (but not lying), we were able to present their extracurriculars far more impressively than they appeared on the surface.

But if we removed their amazing SAT/ACT scores, then these students would have a hard time getting into even significantly less competitive colleges. While a high SAT/ACT score is NOT enough to get into a top college, it tremendously compensates for weak extracurriculars as so many of my successful students have experienced! Without their strong SAT/ACT score and without any strong extracurriculars, these students would have to rely even more heavily on their GPA, which is becoming less and less valuable to colleges.

Why GPA is Becoming More and More Meaningless

Why is the GPA losing its value? Because of two factors: grade inflation and inconsistent grading. Most top colleges have insanely high average GPAs for their admitted students. If we looked at the letter grade distribution for admitted students for a college like the University of Georgia (rank #50 nationally in 2020, according to U.S. News), somewhere around 92% of the grades would be an A, 8% would be a B, and almost none would be a C or lower. That means most students are getting nearly straight As, so a high GPA isn’t anything special anymore.

A 2018 study by Fordham University that looked into GPA trends found that the average GPA was rising all around, for both more affluent and less affluent families. That means an A isn’t as valuable as it used to be!

Teachers all around, hounded by powerful parents who demand their children be allowed to retake poor tests, turn in homework late, or receive a higher grade altogether, have been pressured to dole out far more As than students actually deserve. No teacher wants to face the wrath of angry parents, principals, and superintendents who are all hoping to report better grades. But when basically everyone has a higher grade these days, the value of a higher GPA decreases.

The second factor is inconsistent grading. Different schools, different classes, and different teachers all have different grading systems, so an A from an academically easy school is not the same as an A from an academically rigorous school.

Even the same class in the same school might be taught by several different teachers, so if you got assigned the hardest teacher, you’re going to struggle with getting that A compared to your friend who got the easy teacher. Yet, there’s no real way for colleges to account for differences in teachers!

Even the SAME teacher might favor her teacher’s pet and give him an easier time to earn an A, so high school GPAs are highly unregulated and certainly non-standardized.

Students Who Submit an SAT/ACT Score Will Be Given First Dibs

Admission officers are able to make more confident decisions with more data, especially objective data like an SAT/ACT score, which they have already been accustomed to using for years! So the admission officers are likely to make decisions about students with scores first, filling up their “admit” slots with students with strong SAT/ACT scores first. Even otherwise impressive students WITHOUT a score will be getting second dibs. The remaining slots will become more competitive too because there are fewer openings left.So if you want top priority and an easier time to get accepted, take the SAT/ACT!

Test-Optional Might Only Be Optional for SOME Students, Not All

Also, please be extremely careful if you’re getting your information about a specific college’s testing requirements from some master list of test-optional or test-blind schools. For example, Cornell University would probably show up on the list of test-optional schools, but it’s only test optional for specific students ONLY: only those who do not live near an SAT/ACT testing site or whose families experienced serious financial or other hardship during 2020. You MUST consult the college’s own official website to confirm the fine print about the SAT/ACT requirements.

12 MORE Reasons to Take the SAT/ACT

  1. Some test-optional colleges still REQUIRE the SAT/ACT for out-of-state students, so if that’s you, you better take the test!
  2. Some majors within a college still REQUIRE the SAT/ACT, even if the overall university is test-optional.
  3. Some colleges still REQUIRE the SAT/ACT if you’re below their minimum GPA or class rank.
  4. Without an SAT/ACT score, some colleges will REQUIRE 2 or 3 SAT Subject Tests or several AP Exams instead. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather study for one test than several tests.
  5. SAT/ACT scores are often still used for merit scholarships, worth usually between $10,000 to $100,000! Even if the test scores aren’t used for admissions, that’s a lot of money!
  6. Many students are taking the PSAT in October, and doing well on that can lead to recognition as a National Merit Finalist (which improves admission chances) with scholarship money. If you’re already studying for the PSAT, you might as well take the normal SAT, which is essentially just a slightly longer and only barely harder version of the PSAT.
  7. Many test-optional colleges will use the SAT/ACT for post-enrollment course placement, so take the SAT/ACT if you hope to skip the intro college classes (potentially saving time and thousands in tuition fees).
  8. Just because a college is currently test-optional doesn’t mean it can’t change back to test-required the year you apply! If you haven’t taken the SAT/ACT by then, it might be too late, so you can’t even apply.
  9. Without an SAT/ACT score, you’ll be judged more harshly on all your other qualifications, which are mostly subjective and harder to improve: extracurriculars, personal statements, interviews, letters of recommendation, interviews, etc. Most students who don’t take the SAT/ACT won’t actually spend the time saved to improve their application in meaningful ways; more than likely, that extra time will go to hanging out with friends, sleep, or Youtube/Netflix/video games — I’ve seen it countless times because that’s just how most people are. Human nature!
  10. Without an SAT/ACT score, any mistakes or missed opportunities to present your BEST self will become amplified. Most students have no clue how to effectively write a resume or fill out the activities description of their college application, so they just list out job responsibilities and tasks, rather than specific accomplishments or tangible impact. Such mistakes will make you seem like a weaker applicant, especially when you don’t have a strong SAT/ACT to make up for these perceived weaknesses. A test score is simple, objective, and virtually impossible to present wrong, unlike your activities or personal qualities which students almost ALWAYS present poorly if they don’t have effective college guidance.
  11. For test-optional schools, about 80% of students STILL submit an SAT/ACT score. Do you really want to be in that 20% that colleges have to wonder about and determine if you’re qualified enough?
  12. According to CollegeVine, students who submit an SAT/ACT score have about DOUBLE the chances of admissions and QUADRUPLE the chances at receiving merit scholarships compared to similarly qualified students who don’t submit a score.

Yes, Take the SAT/ACT!

The value of a standardized test like the SAT or ACT is in providing OBJECTIVE data to fairly compare students from all high schools. If the one and only standardized and objective piece of data is gone, then colleges must now rely on the UNRELIABLE high school GPA, subjective extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, interviews, and personal statements, all of which colleges expect to see higher levels of achievement if you don’t have an SAT/ACT score.

In a nutshell, not submitting a score to a test-optional score is far more likely to hurt you than help you. There’s zero chance a college will admit a student with no SAT/ACT score than an equivalent student (same GPA, same extracurriculars, same quality personal statements and letter of rec, etc.) who does submit a score, which we can assume will be relatively strong.

That means it’s to your advantage to continue studying for the SAT/ACT! Hour for hour, there is no other thing you can do to improve your admission chances than acing one of these tests!

Don’t let the tempting option of avoiding the SAT/ACT lure you away; otherwise, you’re going to need to spend hundreds of hours (or even 1,000+) doing something else just to improve your admission chances by the same amount as a solid SAT/ACT score!

If you’re looking to improve your score as effectively as possible, then I’m soon going to be opening up space for SAT Ascension, my summer intensive to help you ace the SAT once and for all. It’s going to be limited to about 10-15 students only, so if you’re interested in the details, email me at [email protected].

Now, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you agree or disagree with the test-optional trend? Just leave a comment below. I read every response!

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