The Landscape Has Shifted
Test-optional admissions is opening doors for students who would have previously been locked out of their top choices. Students now have a chance at getting accepted to colleges they were previously locked out of. But the story is nuanced. Despite a policy that appears to discount the value of entrance exams like the SAT or ACT, applicants with competitive test scores –even if they are otherwise unremarkable– are the true beneficiaries in the new admissions landscape.
Before the pandemic, virtually all applicants submitted their test scores, and these scores played an outsized role in the selection process at each stage of the cycle. Early on, admissions offices used them to filter out low-scorers who did not meet a particular baseline. Later in the cycle, test scores provided much-needed context when evaluating applicant grades. At the last stage, test scores were used as tie-breakers to relieve decision fatigue. Understandably, the move to test-optional admissions has not been easy for admissions offices.
Admissions offices lost not only a tool that made their jobs easier but also one that made them better at their jobs. Admissions offices’ top priority is admitting candidates who have a high probability of graduating in four years. The 4-year graduation rate is rarely a compelling selling point for students, but to colleges, this metric is sacrosanct because it taps into the university’s core function: successfully graduating students. The most effective tool admissions people have for predicting the 4-year graduation rate is the SAT and ACT. Small variations in SAT scores are unlikely to outweigh other factors like high school GPA, but a 200-point difference is strongly predictive of graduation rate.
The predictive value of the SAT can be understood intuitively. For example, consider MIT, one of the nation’s most competitive technical universities. Engineering students at MIT are expected to be experts at the highest levels of calculus by the end of their freshman year. During their sophomore year, they must master a highly abstract field known as linear algebra and matrices. For applicants who promise to master graduate-level math by their sophomore year, the math on the SAT must be trivial. Thus, any MIT applicant who fails to score nearly perfectly on SAT Math raises red flags within the admissions office. This logic applies to less selective colleges as well. Virginia Tech’s engineering program, which moves at a slower pace than MIT’s, will tolerate applicants who miss a few hard questions because their program is designed to accommodate strong students who are not quite at the level of MIT’s. This phenomenon also applies to non-STEM coursework. For example, a Princeton Literature major should have no problem with the relatively simplistic questions posed on the SAT Reading.
The New VIPs
Without test scores to help predict students’ suitability for a university’s coursework, admissions officers must read tea leaves to infer what a standardized test used to reveal. To the relief of admissions officers, this granular analysis is not required for all applicants because a large share of applicants still submit their test scores —specifically when they compare well to the university’s average. Burnt-out admissions officers prize these applicants because they have demonstrated on a standardized exam that they can handle test questions at a similar level to that of the university’s coursework. That is why students with strong test scores are the new VIPs. Provided they pass some basic vetting, the new VIPs will receive an acceptance letter in their mailbox.
It was not always this way. A high test score relative to a university’s average was not always a ticket to getting in. However, this has changed over time. Nowadays, there are fewer high-scoring applicants because many potential high-scorers have chosen not to take exams, assuming that “test-optional” means that tests are less important. This is a costly decision, as no-test applicants place themselves in the same bin as less capable students, leaving the university with fewer —and more privileged— VIPs.
How should VIP-factor factor into your decision to take the tests?
There is a clear benefit to taking the tests if there is a reason to believe one can score well on the exam. Many are risk averse and decide that hours of studying and a financial investment would only justify a predictable return. There is no way to guarantee a student will reach a certain score, but there is something close that we at Ivy Tutor call the PSAT 10 + 200 Rule. By taking the 10th grade PSAT results and adding 200 points, parents and students can generate a conservative estimate for a student’s final score, provided they prepare for the exams with a professional test prep tutor*.
How does the PSAT 10 + 200 help?
With the knowledge of a likely to score (again, with a professional test prep tutor), applicants can compare their PSAT 10 + 200 score against their target school’s average. If this score matches the range of their target school, preparing for the test is a worthwhile endeavor.
Remember, applicants that withhold their test scores are at a disadvantage: colleges assume no-test applicants are withholding their scores because they are lower than the school’s average. For high reach schools, students can still withhold their SAT scores –though the outcome for any high reach application is unlikely to change.
*It’s important to stress that professional test prep tutor means exactly that. At Ivy Tutor, test prep is our core focus and an obsession. We consider every facet of test prep, from the exact language we use to describe concepts to tutoring strategies that activate functional memory. What’s more, we don’t leave anything to chance. Students take weekly practice tests to ensure they are on track to meet or exceed their goals. We are one of the few who are confident enough to offer this full transparency. This is our standard for professional test prep tutoring, and it should be yours as well.