For the second year in a row, Princeton University will waive their SAT and ACT requirements for undergraduate applications submitted for the 2021–22 academic year, and it would not be a surprise if most colleges and universities follow their lead.
For students who have faced countless exam cancellations, and difficult study conditions, this will be a huge relief. Given the hours and hours of homework and Zoom sessions students have had to manage since the outbreak of COVID-19, having one less thing to deal with is a win in many ways, even for students who did manage to sit for the exam. And it is definitely a win for education advocates who argue that the SAT and ACT do not accurately reflect students’ aptitude for learning.
That said, waiving SAT and ACT requirements does pose some serious challenges to students. The SAT and ACT, for all their flaws, represent opportunities for students to demonstrate their academic abilities. Students who have struggled to get the grades they want can supplement their transcripts with strong SAT scores. Straight A students, meanwhile, can prove that their grades are no fluke by acing their standardized exams.
The decision to waive testing requirements has led to record-breaking volumes of applications at almost every elite institution of higher learning. Admissions officers now have one less tool in their tool bags, and must place greater emphasis on the knowledge they have of a student’s school and background in order to evaluate their application.
So what should students do? Should they still try to take the exam? What are the best ways to stand out from the growing and growing pack of applicants?
1. IF YOU CAN, TAKE THE TEST
Health and safety come before anything else. There is a reason schools like Princeton are dropping their requirements for admissions tests they have relied upon for decades. Between limited testing sites, lack of access to resources, and vulnerable family members, colleges and universities know that there are very legitimate obstacles to taking and excelling on the test during this crisis. If you’re one of these students, don’t worry. As Princeton’s admissions office itself says, “Students who do not submit test scores will not be at a disadvantage during our application review process. Applications without test scores will be considered complete.”
While that should be a weight off the shoulders of students with health concerns, or other obstacles preventing them from taking the exam, students who can safely take the test should still do so. Though many schools may not require students to submit SAT or ACT scores, many will still accept them. While strong grades, personal statements, extracurriculars, and recommendations form the backbone of a competitive admissions application, a great standardized test score can only help your case. Moreover, a strong test score may be especially useful in a year when many applicants may not be able to submit scores. If admissions counselors see a strong score alongside other elements of a compelling application, you can be sure you will get a serious look.
Before deciding to sit for the exam, students should take an ACT or SAT practice test, and familiarize themselves with the exams. If you feel you can get a score that will demonstrate your talent and aptitude for learning, then sitting down for the exam is a great idea, health and safety allowing. That said, if you, like many students, find that you excel in school but struggle on the SAT, try to take stock of how much preparation you think you would need in order to get a desirable score. (You can even schedule a free consultation with a tutor to talk about what that preparation process might look like!) In a year like this, students should not prioritize the SAT or ACT over their actual academics. Your academic performance and participation in your classes will count for far more than an exam many will not even be able to take.
At the end of the day, if you don’t get a score that makes you happy, you don’t have to include it! If you’re in a situation in which you can take the test, doing so is still probably a good idea. If health reasons or any other obstacle is keeping you from taking it, however, take the word of the admissions offices: do not worry about it.
2. SHOW INITIATIVE IN YOUR PASSIONS
Whether it’s Princeton or Stanford, Northwestern or Vanderbilt, there is more to admissions than test scores. Princeton could easily pick a class of 1,100 valedictorians with perfect SAT scores if that were the end-all be-all of college admissions. But that’s not how admissions officers think about inviting students to join an incoming class. Every school needs its dancers, its musicians, its activists, its athletes, its young entrepreneurs, its journalists, and so on. Admissions offices look to build a diverse group of students who will come together as a community, and contribute to the community that already exists on campus.
Beyond doing their best in their coursework, students should look to demonstrate initiative in the things they are passionate about. Not every student can be the president of a given club, but there are lots of ways to demonstrate leadership in and enthusiasm for extracurricular activities. Taking the lead on projects, occupying other leadership positions — especially ones that require specific skills like budgeting, outreach, and so on. Specifically, you should look to…
3. USE DIGITAL SPACE TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
This is not exactly a banner year for starting new clubs, or organizing events. This period of remote learning does, however, offer some valuable opportunities for students to demonstrate their talents and passions in digital spaces, or with digital resources. Mutual aid groups and local charities offer students opportunities to get involved with complicated logistics like order intake and budgeting. Students can hone valuable skills in digital advertising, promotion, outreach, and more. Intrepid journalists can organize community newsletters via services like MailChimp and Substack, or found interest-sites focused on passions like sports, fashion, music, literature, and more. Poets can organize writing groups for like-minded artists, or workshops for younger kids in desperate need of some creative time after a long day in their Zoom classroom.
Though COVID has disrupted countless activities, it also presents opportunities for students to organize and engage with their communities, and to demonstrate initiative in and passion for the things that excite them. Demonstrating this passion and confidence helps colleges understand what you would bring to campus life. Moreover, it reflects your resiliency and resolve. It shows admissions officers that you want to connect with others, and build community, whether with neighbors, or fellow artists.
4. BUILD STRONG RELATIONSHIPS WITH TEACHERS
Remote learning has meant fewer opportunities for students and teachers to develop relationships outside of strict academic contexts. There are fewer opportunities for incidental encounters. Zoom learning often drains students, making them less inclined to forge stronger relationships with their teachers. It is imperative, as a result, that students work actively to build deep relationships with teachers who might write recommendations for them — especially if they won’t be taking the SAT or ACT. Without the added context of standardized tests, other parts of the application take on more weight. In a year when grades may be deflated by the challenges COVID has posed, and when fewer students than usual have strong ties with their teachers, it is especially important that ambitious students seek out teachers in the subjects in which they excel.
To do this, students don’t need to be what one might call a “teacher’s pet.” It can start with something as simple as seeking out help with an assignment. Teachers, though busy, are passionate about their subjects and their students. They respond to students’ legitimate interest in their coursework with legitimate interest of their own.
COVID has turned much of the admissions process on its head. From the effects it has had on learning and academic performance, to the consequences it has had for extracurricular pursuits and standardized testing, it is easy to feel dispirited about the application process. In the end, though, much of the conventional wisdom from before COVID applies to the world during COVID. Students should always put their best foot forward. They should get the best grades they can. They should spend time and demonstrate initiative in things they actually care about. They should try to build the best relationships they can with their teachers. Though COVID has changed a lot about the admissions process, one thing remains true: ambitious, creative students will find ways to demonstrate their talent and character to schools that will value them when it’s finally time to come to campus.