A couple weeks ago I wrote an article advising 2020 juniors on ACT and SAT testing. Thank you to everyone who contacted me and shared the article with your friends, neighbors, and school groups. If you missed it, you can find it [here].

Since then I’ve had a lot of requests for advice for current seniors, the students for whom the pandemic has most drastically altered traditional college planning. There are so many different situations, but I will try to cover the most common dilemmas.

Advice I’d Give My Son

Just like in my other article, I’m approaching this as if I were advising my own son. I will try to point out where I’m making a judgement call that could be seen from multiple perspectives. As with all elements of college selection, your priorities may differ.

Know Your Numbers

Your very first step in evaluating college choice, testing, or admissions options is to know your numbers. Personally, I’m an Excel spreadsheet person, but you could list this in a Word document or in a notebook.

Here’s what you should know:

1. Personal GPA/ Rank / existing scores

If your high school ranks students, know your exact place in the class (for example #127 out of 734, which is top 17%). Know your weighted and unweighted GPA. More on GPAs [here]. Finally, know all of your existing SAT and ACT scores. Some students have no scores because all of their spring / summer exams were canceled.

2. The average numbers for ALL the schools on your list.

You want to know the percent of applicants who are admitted, the class rank / GPA of incoming freshman, and their average SAT or ACT scores.

A quick Google search can help you find these numbers. I recommend:

  • College Board College Search (under your school use the “apply” tab to locate scores and GPA.)
  • A search for “X University admitted student profile” which should lead you to the data from the school’s website.

3. Your admissions options at each school.

I’m looking for a few things in this category:

  • Is there a guaranteed admission policy? Many of our state universities here in Texas offer automatic admission based on class rank and test scores. For example, a student ranked in the second quarter of her class with an SAT score of 1100 would automatically be admitted to Texas State, but not Texas Tech (needs a 1240).
  • Does the school offer early admission or early action plans? More on why this matters [here.]
  • What are the admissions deadlines? Are there any priority deadlines that could impact scholarships, financial aid, or admission to competitive programs?
  • Has this school made ACT / SAT scores optional for admission this year? An overwhelming majority have, but don’t assume. If you cannot find this information on a college’s admission website, pick up the phone and ask.

Once you have gathered all the data, you will evaluate each college. What you need for one school may not be the same as what you need for a more competitive option.

Easy Situations (Good News)

There are some seniors who find themselves in a solid position when it comes to applications. This doesn’t mean they are guaranteed to get into all the schools on their list; it does mean they aren’t thinking about taking (or re-taking) the ACT or SAT.

These students

  • Took the SAT or ACT already and have scores that currently meet or exceed the averages at all the colleges on their lists. And /or
  • Have exceptionally high GPAs/ class ranks and are happy to be evaluated on those numbers without test scores. (Think of the guy in the top 4% of his class, or the gal with a 3.95 unweighted GPA earned from a rigorous course schedule.)

If one or more of your colleges put you in this good news category, go ahead and apply when you are ready. You don’t need to worry about taking the ACT or SAT. (Whew!)

Tough Situations (Really NEED Scores)

You probably know already if you fit in this category. You have one or more schools on your list where your chances of getting in on your GPA, rank, activities, essays, and recommendations is slim. You know that if you could submit strong test scores, your chances of admission would significantly improve.

Often this means you are seeking admission to a larger state university where, historically, test scores have played a significant role in the applications process. An example might be my situation above where a student ranked in the second quarter of her class could automatically gain admission at Texas State with an SAT of 1090 (ACT 22), but at Texas Tech she needs an SAT of 1240 (ACT 26). In this case, the test score can make all the difference.

I work with many clients who fall into this category for a variety of reasons:

  • Student who attends a non-ranking private preparatory school where his 3.5 GPA (many As, but also Bs) makes him appear average despite his above-average academic skills.
  • Student who attends a competitive suburban high school. She has mostly As and Bs with a couple advanced classes, but falls in the middle of her class. She’s not trying to go to Harvard, but would like to get into some more competitive state universities.
  • Student who was immature in 9th grade, but has since improved his study habits and grades. His transcript shows improvement, but his GPA and class rank still show the damage he did as a foolish freshman.
  • A student who is applying for a major scholarship that still requires scores. Or the student seeking Congressional nomination for a service academy (West Point, Air Force Academy, etc.) and has been told by staffers that they require ACT or SAT results.

What unites all of these students is a need for scores. Their chances for admission (or scholarships, nominations, etc.) are almost zero if they submit their applications without test scores. In some cases, scores might qualify them for automatic admission; in other cases, the scores merely give them a fighting chance.

These are the seniors desperate to take the ACT or SAT this fall.

They Grey Area (Judgement Calls Needed)

A lot of situations fall into the grey area– better scores might help, but the student might be just fine without them. In past years, these would be the seniors retaking the SAT or ACT in the fall to try for just a few more points.

Here are a couple situations I’ve seen in recent weeks:

1.A high achieving guy (top 2% of his class) who scored a 1380 on the SAT and a 31 on the ACT. (I know some of you are thinking this guy has it made.) But he wants to major in architecture and is applying to University of Texas at Austin and Rice, to name a few. His superior class rank, puts him in good shape for UT, but what should he do for Rice? For the class of 2023, Rice admitted 9% of its applicants and their test scores (25%-75%) ranged from 1470-1560 (SAT) and 33-35 (ACT). Should he retake the SAT, ACT, or both to try to get his scores up? Should he send his application without scores and trust that the rest of his application is competitive? (Here’s the Rice admitted student profile if you want to see what one looks like: [here].)

2. A good, but not exceptional student who is ranked in the second quarter of his class. He has some extracurriculars, but not a ton. He was studying for the April ACT before everything got canceled. He has been scoring 24s on his ACT practice tests, but would need a 26 for automatic admission at Texas Tech. Honestly, he’s getting tired of waiting for the ACT. Should he keep studying and try to take the September or October exams? Maybe he could make a 26, but it doesn’t seem likely. Would a 24 on the ACT really be better than no scores? Should he apply without scores and hope his essay and letters of recommendation will be enough?

There are many more students who fall into this grey area where their need to take the ACT or SAT is unclear.

Some Advice on Evaluating your Situation

In order to decide what seniors should do, they need to honestly evaluate all of the factors outlined above.

Many of my clients struggle with this in regular years. They look at the SAT/ GPA numbers and see that they are within range and assume they will get in; they fail to look at other factors such as percent of applicants admitted, specific characteristics each school finds important, and whether a particular school makes decisions primarily on numbers or using a holistic approach. If you want to understand these issues better:

Here are some tips to help you evaluate:

  • Any school that admits fewer than 20% of its applicants should be considered a long shot. These schools reject perfect score valedictorians every year. Even incredibly qualified students will be rejected. Numbers alone (GPA/scores) will not be sufficient.
  • SAT and ACT averages will NOT be lower this year. This rumor is circulating online and assumes that because many students didn’t get the chance to re-test that scores will be lower. This is wrong. When schools make SAT and ACT scores optional for admission, the average test scores go up. Think about it. Only students with high scores will opt to submit them; students with lower than average scores will not.
  • Colleges evaluate what you send. They do not have time to sit around and wonder why you didn’t have scores. Maybe you don’t test well, but maybe your spring test was canceled. They aren’t going to speculate.
  • Colleges want students who have demonstrated the ability to handle college-bound academics and will contribute to campus. Like the point above, colleges evaluate what you send: grades, transcripts, essays, etc. They cannot evaluate good intentions, hope to do better in the future, what you really meant to say in an essay, or your burning desire to get into that particular school.

If you need help evaluating your college chances, you can schedule a consultation and I will give you an honest opinion.

Planning to Take the ACT / SAT

If you have come to the conclusion that you want to take the ACT or SAT this fall, prepare yourself for a bumpy ride. College Board (SAT) and ACT are accepting registration for fall exams, but test registration doesn’t guarantee the test will be given.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Emotionally prepare for cancelations, inconvenient test locations, the inability to reach someone on the phone to answer questions, and delays.
  • Know the school plans for test centers in your area (anywhere a reasonable distance from your home.) Are they offering in-person instruction (full time or hybrid schedule)? Have they canceled extracurricular activities or other activities on campus?
  • Try to schedule your exam at a school that is experiencing fewer cases of community transmission of the coronavirus, currently welcoming students on campus, and clearly communicating their testing plans to the community.

I’m in the suburban Houston area and trying to meet this last suggestion is hard. Since March, most schools have not clearly communicated their testing plans to their own students, let alone the district or community. We have few schools opening for in-person instruction on the first day of class and we have yet to see if any closures will result.

If it was my son, we would make our best guess for registration. I’ve had some clients register for exams out of town, even out of state. I might do that if my son was a senior and we felt he needed the opportunity to take the exam. But we’ve also seen some rural areas of Texas turn into hot spots overnight, so even these strategic plans can backfire. We would recognize that taking a test involves some exposure, so we would want precautions like face masks and reduced capacity. I would not send my son to take an exam if we were worried it might jeopardize his health or the health of those living in our home. You make this decision for your family knowing the situation in your area and the risk factors of the people in your household.

Making Alternative Plans (Worst Case Scenarios)

My hope is that all seniors who want to test are able to do so before application deadlines this fall. In some cases, this may mean applications are submitted in November or December. But it is possible that students in some parts of the country may face difficulties registering, repeat cancelations, or other factors that prevent them for successfully taking the ACT or SAT.

As we move through the fall, I would want my son to be ready to adjust his college plans. I know some of these suggestions may not seem ideal, but nothing about this year has been ideal.

Let’s work through some of the backup plans from moderate to more drastic. Here are the steps we would take at my house:

1.Delay sending applications until he could take the SAT or ACT. This is why we would have looked up all deadlines. I know the September and October exams will work, but we would know if November or December exams would still allow him to meet deadlines. We might have to opt for regular admission if taking the test meant he missed early or priority deadlines.

2. Work to improve all other aspects of the application: essays, letters of recommendation, etc. If we were facing a judgement call situation and had not been able to test by late November, we would move forward and apply.

3. Expand his college list. Yes, he may have fallen in love with a school (or schools), but if we are relying on testing in such an uncertain year, he needs to add more schools to his list that offer greater a likelihood of admission. This conversation may include one of my favorite admissions analogies– “Yes, the BMW is amazing, but you need to start looking for an option that is more realistic given our numbers. How about that Honda or used Toyota?” In other words, find something you can be happy in that will work for your “budget.”

4. If all else fails, make new plans. I hope that by December we will see regular SAT and ACT testing, but if my son couldn’t test, and if he didn’t get into most of the schools on his list, and if he really didn’t like the options he had, we would work on a new plan. That plan might include starting at a college that isn’t his dream school and working to transfer. (You can listen to one of my podcast episodes where we talk with a student who went from community college to her dream university [here.]) A new plan might involve a well thought out gap year so he can develop his talents and interests, finally get the chance to take the ACT or SAT, and reapply to a better set of colleges.

Navigating a New Process

Just as school will look different this fall, college admissions will look different. How you approach the application process depends a lot on how your numbers compare to the averages for the colleges on your list.

My best advice for seniors in the high school class of 2021 is to research your options, plan and prepare, but remain flexible. You may face some discouraging situations, but don’t give up. Keep in mind there are many wonderful schools out there—most you haven’t heard of yet—and you can find one where you will be successful. Keep your options open and be ready to adjust.