The Test-Optional Trend

In recent years, a significant shift has occurred in college admissions policies, with many institutions adopting a test-optional approach. This movement gained momentum, particularly during the pandemic, as access to testing sites became challenging. Schools like Dartmouth, known for their rigorous academic standards, temporarily joined this trend, providing applicants the freedom to decide whether to submit SAT or ACT scores.

Dartmouth’s Pivot: A Return to Standardized Testing

The Importance of Being Prepared

However, Dartmouth’s recent decision to revert to requiring standardized tests for admission underscores a critical point: the enduring value of the SAT and ACT in the college admissions process. This pivot highlights the necessity for students to remain prepared for all possibilities, including the sudden reinstatement of testing requirements by other institutions. Read more about Dartmouth’s reinstated testing requirements here.

SAT ACT Optional Graph

Why Standardized Tests Matter- the SAT and ACT

Standardized tests, such as the SAT and ACT, have played a significant role in college admissions for several reasons, providing a common measure that colleges and universities can use to evaluate the academic readiness of applicants from various educational backgrounds. Here’s why these tests matter in the college admissions process:

  1. Comparative Measure: High schools across the U.S. and internationally can vary widely in their grading standards and curricula. Standardized tests offer a uniform metric that helps admissions officers compare the academic abilities of students from different schools and educational systems.
  2. Academic Readiness: These tests are designed to assess skills and knowledge that are essential for college-level work, including critical reading, math, and, in some cases, science and writing. Scores can indicate whether a student is prepared for the rigors of postsecondary education.
  3. Predictive Value: While the predictive validity of standardized tests for college success is debated, many institutions find that SAT and ACT scores, combined with high school GPA and other factors, can help predict a student’s ability to succeed in their first year of college.
  4. Scholarship Eligibility: Many scholarship programs use SAT or ACT scores as part of their criteria for awarding financial aid. Thus, by taking these tests and scoring well, students can open up opportunities for scholarships that can make college more affordable. (Want to know how else to score scholarships? Find our 10 Secrets to Scholarships HERE)
  5. Holistic Review Context: For colleges that practice holistic admissions, standardized test scores are just one factor among many — including GPA, extracurricular activities, essays, and letters of recommendation — that provide insight into a student’s potential. A strong test score can complement other elements of an application, showcasing a student’s strengths and readiness for college.
  6. Admissions Strategy: Even in a landscape where many colleges have adopted test-optional policies, submitting competitive SAT or ACT scores can give applicants an edge, particularly at highly selective institutions. For students applying to schools that have returned to requiring standardized tests, such as Dartmouth, having these scores is essential.
  7. Confidence and Preparation: Preparing for and taking standardized tests can also help students build test-taking skills and confidence in their abilities, which can be beneficial in college, where similar skills are often needed for success in coursework and exams.

Strategies for Success

  1. Achieving success in college admissions, particularly in the context of standardized testing, requires careful planning, preparation, and a strategic approach. Here are key strategies that can help students navigate the college admissions process effectively, especially when standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are part of the equation:

    1. Early Preparation

    • Start Early: Begin test preparation well in advance of the test dates. This allows for ample time to identify and strengthen areas of weakness.
    • Practice Tests: Take full-length practice tests under timed conditions to become familiar with the test format and to improve timing and endurance.

    2. Understand the Admissions Criteria

    • Research Requirements: Understand the admissions criteria of the colleges you’re interested in. Know whether they require, recommend, or consider standardized test scores.
    • Test-Optional Strategy: If applying to test-optional schools, decide whether your scores reflect your academic abilities accurately and whether they will strengthen your application.

    3. Holistic Application Building

    • Academic Excellence: Focus on maintaining a strong GPA in rigorous coursework. This demonstrates your academic commitment and readiness for college-level work.
    • Extracurricular Involvement: Engage in extracurricular activities that showcase leadership, passion, and a commitment to community. Quality is more important than quantity.
    • Personal Essays: Craft compelling essays that highlight your unique perspectives, experiences, and how you’ve overcome challenges. Essays are a chance to make your application stand out.
    • Letters of Recommendation: Seek recommendations from teachers or mentors who know you well and can speak to your strengths and potential.

    4. Targeted Test Preparation

    • Identify Strengths and Weaknesses: Use practice tests to identify areas for improvement and focus your study efforts accordingly.
    • Utilize Resources: Take advantage of test prep books, online resources, tutoring, and classes to enhance your test-taking skills and knowledge.
    • Practice Consistently: Regular, focused practice can lead to significant improvements over time. Incorporate test prep into your weekly schedule.

    5. Strategic Test Selection and Retaking

    • Choose Your Test Wisely: Decide whether the SAT or ACT plays to your strengths. Some students perform significantly better on one test over the other.
    • Consider Retaking: If your scores are below the average for admitted students at your target colleges, consider retaking the test if time and resources allow. However, balance this with the diminishing returns of multiple retakes.

    6. Time Management and Stress Reduction

    • Balanced Schedule: Manage your time effectively to balance schoolwork, test preparation, extracurriculars, and personal time. Avoid burnout by setting realistic goals and taking breaks.
    • Reduce Test Anxiety: Practice stress-reduction techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing, or exercise to improve focus and performance under pressure.

    7. Stay Informed and Flexible

    • Monitor Policy Changes: Keep up-to-date with changes in admissions policies at your target schools, especially regarding test requirements.
    • Adapt Strategy: Be prepared to adapt your college admissions strategy as circumstances change, whether due to personal reasons or shifts in college admissions trends.

    Implementing these strategies can help students navigate the complexities of college admissions, making the most of their strengths and opportunities. Success in this process involves not just academic preparation but also strategic planning and personal growth.

Embracing Preparedness and Flexibility

Dartmouth’s return to requiring standardized tests serves as a reminder of the unpredictable nature of college admissions. While test-optional policies offer flexibility, the potential benefits of taking the SAT or ACT — from scholarship eligibility to a competitive edge — are significant. By staying informed, considering all options, and preparing holistically, students can navigate these challenges and position themselves for success in the college admissions journey.

We at College Ready always steer our students towards completing their SAT and ACT and Dartmouth’s policy change has confirmed our reason why- you never know when your dream school will make a change that will effect your admissions.

College Ready hosts 1-2 Masterclasses a month on various topics regarding college admissions and how to help your teenager get into the best fit college with no to little debt. You can register for this Webinar Series HERE.

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