SATs, ACTs take back seat in college apps this year


There are fewer times in a teenager’s life more anxiety-inducing than junior year of high school.

College planning and preparation is stressful enough, and it’s only made more so by the alphabet soup of standardized testing to get into those colleges: SAT, AP, IB, ACT and everything in between.

But much of this testing begins in the spring — which this past year was the same season the country plunged headfirst into the coronavirus pandemic. Standardized tests were canceled across America, grading policies were hastily revised to accommodate remote learning, and the usual processes of college searching and planning were thrown into flux.

And now, as September nears, college applications and essay supplements are starting to go live online. But there are still many questions for the students filling them out, especially since two of the major factors in college admissions — standardized testing scores and grades in school subjects — aren’t what they used to be.

Neha Mani’s college search certainly isn’t shaping up the way she thought it would. She was unable to take any standardized tests to include on her college applications.

But while Mani might not necessarily be bummed about missing out on hours of testing, the high school is still a bit unsure how colleges will select their incoming classes without the information gleaned from test scores.

“If admissions (offices) have a test-optional policy, then the standardized testing policy is not really that important for many applications,” Mani said. “So it’s kind of like, what really is important for an application this year?”

Although the pandemic has made several aspects of the college application process more difficult for Mani, it also presented a blessing in disguise: More time to flesh out and organize everything she still needed to do.

“In terms of writing my applications, I have found the time to really work through essays,” she said. “And I’ve created a schedule, because when you’re in quarantine, that’s kind of needed.”

Even though standardized test scores are not as vital in the college admissions process as they used to be, they still carry a lot of weight. According to the College Board, nearly half of the 75 most selective schools in the country list standardized test scores as “very important” factors in their admissions process, as opposed to a third that listed them as “important” and about the same amount that they are “considered.”

There are three available SAT testing dates before November, which is when most early action and early decision applications are due. And there are two more before the year ends, as January usually marks the deadline for regular decision applications.

But some colleges are modifying their admission processes due to the unprecedented impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The vast majority of those aforementioned top colleges and universities in the country have moved to a test-optional admissions process, including all eight Ivy League schools and Stanford University.

Mattan Schachner, who is set to start his senior year at the High School of American Studies, is interested in pursuing public policy and law. Because of that, he’s taking his college search outside New York, largely concentrating on the nation’s capital.

Unlike Mani, Schachner took his SATs in March, right before the pandemic essentially closed the state down. Because of that, he doesn’t view the coronavirus as something significantly impacting his college application process.

The pandemic “is more just another factor to consider,” Schachner said. “As far as me specifically, I’ve been pretty lucky. I was able to take the SAT once. Hopefully I’ll be able to take it again in October.”

The decision to move to make tests like the SAT and ACT optional is gaining prominence nationally, but it’s also happening locally. Manhattan College made the decision to make the tests optional fairly early on. Not that they had much choice — standardized tests were being canceled across the country.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, SAT and ACT scores were a significant factor in Manhattan’s admissions process, according to Tara Fay-Reilly, the college’s admissions director. But this year, her team will take a stronger look at transcripts along with other aspects of applications beyond test scores.

Fay-Reilly noted the high volume of first-generation applicants Manhattan College receives. The college application experience can be especially challenging for those who might be the first in their family to attend college, even outside of a public health crisis.

“For those students and their parents, this is a whole new world and process,” Fay-Reilly said. “This has just added such a layer of uncertainty and stress that we were looking to … eliminate any other hurdles or obstacles for students.”

While test scores and transcripts remain important factors in the college admissions process, Fay-Reilly worries the process is too reliant on tests, ultimately pulling away from a holistic view of who the applicant truly is.

“When you look at it at face value, you see numbers,” Fay-Reilly said. “But one of the things that our team does best is really that relationship-building and knowing who our pipeline is.

“And they’re not just applications. They’re students with stories.”