Preparing for The Pre-College Process During Test-Optional Trends

Published on January 8, 2021

From letters of recommendation and college entrance exams to showcasing extracurriculars and navigating the logistics of submitting applications, rising high school students are facing high stress as they prepare for the college admissions process. More than 1,600 colleges have gone testing-optional, a new concept for many adding stress and confusion to the process. The college experience has changed, and so has the college admissions process. 

As the pandemic continues to accelerate,  testing-optional will likely become the norm for colleges and universities across the nation. Parents, educators and students need to fully understand what this means for the application process and how to best prepare and navigate for success.

Navigating Testing-Optional 

Colleges and universities that have gone testing-optional are giving students the choice of submitting or not submitting ACT and SAT exam scores. Many students are unable to find open testing centers, and those that are open are inundated with requests for seats. If you’re a student who can take the SAT or ACT, how do you decide if you should?

It comes down to this: Can colleges reasonably expect someone in your position to perform well on the SAT or ACT? For students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, that answer is probably ‘no’—but not because of a lack of ability. Because the testing process is expensive and time-consuming. Students from lower economic backgrounds would be unfairly burdened by the expectation of outperformance on the SAT and ACT. This is who the testing-optional policy was designed to benefit. On the other hand, students who come from privileged backgrounds will likely be expected to take the tests and to do well. Students from these backgrounds often have the means to undertake the test-prep process, and they would do well to submit strong scores. 

While the pandemic has accelerated the testing-optional trend, it actually started much earlier. Most schools will likely become testing-optional over time, but this doesn’t mean they’ll ever become test blind. The result is that test-taking will be an implicit requirement of students who are able to do so. It will be crucial to understand how to best prepare for the admissions process with this flexible requirement.  

Prepare for the Pre-College, Testing-Optional Process

While the tests have their flaws, as GPA is a better measure of college performance, they also have their merits. They provide a standardized point of comparison in a time when grade inflation is rampant. Furthermore, even if grading were on a standardized scale nationally, there are extreme differences in the curriculum available. We lack a better way to compare a home-schooled student to a top-tier private school student.

For students that are able to do so, taking the SAT/ ACT can greatly help enhance their college application and increase their chances of admission.

High school teachers play a big role in preparing students for the questions and challenges they face on exams. Of course, a robust high school curriculum will assist in preparing students. But beyond this, assisting students with mastery of multiple-choice tests, effective test-preparation strategies, and addressing testing anxiety are all ways that high school educators can provide their students with support. 

Additionally, educators and parents should ensure that students are getting enough practice and review time. The deliberate practice method is a great approach for test-prep and helps free up unnecessary studying time for students. It works by determining strengths and weaknesses and then targeting practice based on where improvement is needed. Tracking practice within the targeted areas will help achieve much more in a shorter time frame and hone specific skills. Test-prep tutors are an excellent resource to prepare and target areas of preparation for students. 

The best advice is to not think of SAT/ACT testing as distinct from high school coursework. Performing well in high school courses will prepare one for the SAT and ACT in a way that test-prep cannot. While college test-prep is highly effective, it is not a substitute for three years of a well-rounded curriculum based in math and language throughout high school. 

Other Ways to Prepare for the Application Process

A strong SAT or ACT score can improve chances when applying to testing-optional and test-required schools. It’s also important for parents and students to remember that there are other differentiators that can set students apart in the college application process. 

For example, students interested in STEM programs can benefit from online programs teaching code such as Python or competing in a Kaggle competition. These skills differentiate students in the application process and show they are consistent in their education despite challenges. While the pandemic has brought many roadblocks for students, opportunities like these present a great topic for a college application essay. 

Another important factor for parents and educators to instill is a growth mindset. This will help students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed. Ensuring this mindset is in place for students and encouraging them to grow their skills through persistence will help them as they prepare to apply for schools and also for when they reach the collegiate level. A growth mindset can be highly beneficial in giving students confidence and preparing them to be successful as they continue to face new challenges. 

The college admissions process is stressful for many high school students as they prepare to apply to their dream universities. Ultimately, it comes down to preparing students early on to properly face challenges and stand out. Choosing whether to admit scores to a test-optional school boils down to the individual and other differentiating factors. Parents and educators need to be focused on setting students up for success in college test-prep and their futures. 

Matt Larriva is the founder of Powerful Prep and is an expert in test-prep, test-taking, and the pre-college process. In addition to publishing three books on test prep, Matt runs Powerful Prep, a leading concierge tutoring firm, dedicated to transparency, massive point gains, and customized curriculum. Powerful Prep hires only Ivy League grads, offers industry-leading point gains, and has the highest reviews of any college program in Southern California.  Matt was named an “elite super tutor” by the BBC, and his opinions have been featured in the LA Times and the Wall Street Journal. He works with students locally and globally who are seeking the best in test prep. Matt has passed two of Degree Library's 10 Hardest Exams in the World including the Mensa admissions exam, and the CFA exam--the test The Wall Street Journal called the world's hardest test. Matt completed his undergraduate degree at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and has a Masters in Applied Statistics from UCLA.

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