Life used to be simple. When I was applying to college back in 2008, there was little to no variance on college application requirements. Every school valued the same factors: grades and class ranking, extracurricular involvement, the essays, and of course, standardized tests.
I was one of the lucky few to have a fantastic tutor, one who actually jump-started my interest in education. He demystified concepts for me that I had always struggled with in school, and dispelled the notion that students could ever be fully represented by just a number. Sometimes overcoming challenges is about reframing, and in this case that was the key. Rather than feel the immense pressure of delivering a perfect score, my tutor tasked me with “outsmarting the test.” What started as terrifying ultimately became fun. That’s the power of great education.
Our goal at A-List powered by Testive is to deliver that kind of experience to all students — not just a lucky few. But it feels like every year brings a new, immense change to the college application landscape. One exciting new trend is the test-blind option.
Testing Options for College Admissions
In terms of testing options, many people know about the test-optional policy. Colleges were already trending in this direction, but COVID-19 made it virtually impossible for some students (often less privileged ones) to take the SAT or ACT. So schools made it optional to submit test scores. This put students in a tough position, though, because a lot of students still were submitting fantastic test scores, giving them a leg up against their fellow applicants.
Enter the test-blind option. Through this policy, not only does the school not require test scores, they refuse to look at them. For most of us in the college admissions world, this is exciting news. It allows students to focus on the more holistic side of their applications. But as of right now, there are only about 70 institutions that are test-blind, according to Fairtest.org. One notable test-blind institution is the UC School System, but that only applies to in-state applicants. In fact, many test-blind institutions have exceptions and fine print that leave students out of their policies.
All of these developments have many students, parents, and educators asking, “Should I even take the SAT or ACT?” For now, the answer is still yes. I like to think of admissions strategy as an umbrella. You want your students’ approach to admissions to cover every potential scenario. Say your student starts with a complete list of test-blind colleges. What if they suddenly want to throw in an application to a competitive test-optional school? Most students applying with great test scores still have the leg up over a student who doesn’t submit scores. Furthermore, we want students to give themselves every advantage possible, and standardized test scores are a great way to bring in more Financial Aid and merit scholarships.
That said, if your students prepare for the SAT or ACT and feel that their scores don’t represent them favorably or accurately, this new test-optional landscape is an opportunity to get their feet in the door at places they may not have been able to before. What’s important is what you do with that opportunity. Many schools say they are looking more at grades, recommendations, essays, and extracurricular involvement to set students apart. As students develop their applications, they should think about themes and narratives: Do all of my pieces fit together in a way that best represents me? Am I giving the admissions officers everything I want them to know about me?
The Important of the College Essay
This is where the essays come in. Colleges viewing an application without a test score have one fewer piece of information from the student. That means one fewer variable to help them decide from a pool of highly qualified applicants. The essay should, in a perfect world, put a face and voice to all of the data of a student’s application, transforming them from an applicant to an actual human being with values, desires, quirks, and a personality. It should advocate for them while telling a story and, just as importantly, sounding like themselves.
When brainstorming for a college essay, there really is no wrong idea or topic. The worst thing a student could do is pick one topic right off the bat without considering any other ideas, especially if they’re picking that topic with the sole purpose of impressing admissions officers. Often, the first idea they think of is one that many others have thought of, too. And after ten years in the field, I can say with confidence that the more specific and focused the essay, the better.
650 words seems like a lot. But when you’re trying to fit your entire life story onto a page, it certainly does not feel that way. Often, the smallest things about students say just as much as their full life story. Some of my past students have written about painting nails at a volunteer job, having tiny hands, and having a love/hate relationship with numbers. You might look at these topics and feel like they sound strange, or wonder how someone is going to make that about how they can succeed in college. That’s EXACTLY what admissions officers are thinking, too. And it’s what will keep them interested in an application.
Overall, I hope that students and educators alike feel optimistic about the new developments in standardized testing. People who work in this field know that every student has a story to tell, and we often fret that the numbers will make admissions officers look away from that student before they even get to tell that story. Now, they can tell it. So I hope that when applying to college for the 2021-2022 school year, students do a few things: be honest; be vulnerable; brainstorm and plan for as long as they write; make connections between two seemingly unrelated things; express their most off-the-wall thoughts and experiences. It’s those little things that make a student who they are. And if they share who they are, openly and thoughtfully, it’s hard for anyone to say no to that.
Director of College Advising