Posted by: Ned Johnson on July 20, 2023
As a parent or student entering the college admissions process, you might need clarification on the choices before you. Commonly we get classic questions like “What test should I take? ACT or SAT?” And more recently, “Why should I take the ACT or SAT if it is test-optional?”
Out of all the questions we receive, we have long conversations surrounding the confusion of test-optional policies for standardized tests of American colleges.
While you and your child can likely think of many good reasons not to take tests to make an informed decision, it’s worth considering whether some reasons to take tests apply to you. Below we have outlined four reasons for test preparation in a test-optional world. Please read through these and talk with college admissions professionals to find the right path for your family.
Better scores, better choices:
Simple math is the most apparent reason to do test prep: better scores = better choices. Indeed, many kids shine academically in ways they don’t, or won’t, on tests like the ACT and SAT. And most colleges will admit students who have demonstrated academic ability without standardized test scores.
The data shows that students who submit scores are accepted at higher rates¹. For example, at the University of Virginia, students without test scores made up 42 percent of applicants but only 26 percent of admissions for the Class of 2026. Whether this is correlation or causation is unclear, as, generally, students with higher GPAs also have higher scores, but the advice espoused by college counselors is to submit scores at or near the top half of the range for that college. In short, if you got them, flaunt them.
High performance under pressure
While much attention is paid to students who underperform on the SAT relative to their grades, some students do better on tests than they do in school. Whether from real life or popular movies, we likely share an image of “bright slackers” who cannot seem to care about school enough to do the work asked of them but then casually roll in and crush the SAT or other high-stakes exams.
But, what if we’ve got it backward: what if performance on tests like the ACT and SAT measures the ability of students like these better than grades?
There are many reasons for this apparent academic performance, but some are rooted in brain science. A provocatively titled New York Times article, “Why Can Some Kids Handle the Pressure and Others Fall Apart,” discusses not only how bright, academic kids can stumble under too much pressure and perform better with low pressure but also points to why some students do better with higher pressure, making the SAT a closer approximation of ability.²
Years ago, I tutored a student whose first crack at the ACT was lackluster for him. His college counselor, who also had the challenge of being his English teacher and academic advisor, declared that Michael should “stop wasting his time on the ACT and get his grades up.” In a way, she was right: grades are the most significant criterion for college admissions.
However, two and a half years into high school, his GPA was increasingly set. A student with a 3.3 GPA can only move his GPA to 3.4 for early decision or 3.5 for regular decision, even with stepping up to 4.0, an outcome rooted more in hope than experience. He was, however, able to move his 27 to a 32, moving from the 88th to 97th national percentile. For Michael and many other students, test preparation can be the difference between rejected applications to admission.
Return on Investment (ROI):
While ACT and SAT scores are principally thought of as admissions tools, many universities use them to dole out money. While financial aid is based on financial need, merit aid is not.
Colleges offer merit aid on top of need-based assistance for many reasons. They do it to woo star students, lure out-of-state applicants to budget-strapped public universities, or hit their enrollment and revenue goals by strategically deploying discounts.
There can be a psychological component to merit aid, too. It’s an extra pat on the back for students with financial needs. And families that don’t meet a school’s requirements for need-based aid but are unable or unwilling to pay the total price can still get a discount.
While families should not expect merit aid from the most highly selective colleges they are eyeing, they may at many others. While many colleges have moved away from using ACT and SAT scores in administering merit aid, others have moved aggressively in the other direction, including scholarships at large state universities, Auburn University³, the University of Georgia, and the University of Florida. For colleges that offer scholarships or merit aid based on solid test scores, the return on investment can make test preparation the most lucrative part-time job a student could have.
In my thirty years as a test-prep geek, I’ve become quite attuned to the effects of test anxiety. I’ve seen a low first PSAT score for a student landing like an exploded ordinance in their living room, casting a pall of dread. Often their parents respond with: “I thought I/she/he was so much smarter than that!” when begins a stated or unstated anxiety bouncing around their heads.
Addressing these unhelpful and usually untrue thoughts is a big part of helping kids do their best work on the ACT or SAT. But, while low scores can be borne like a scarlet letter, high scores can be used to deflect criticism and self-doubt.
In my years as a tutor, I have worked with many students who have gained admission to the college of their dreams but still doubt themselves. Whether they feel they “got in” because of connections, wealth, status, or just luck, they worry. For any student, a strong score can act as a shield (or a dagger, take your pick) to ward off self-doubt and the doubts of others: “Look, I scored a [insert score], so you’re wrong about me.”
There are many paths to and through college. With a few exceptions, students now operate in a test-optional world: by and large, they no longer need solid scores but very much may want them. And most mental health is changing thinking from “I have to” to “I want to.” If you have reasons to want to take the ACT or SAT, we’re here to help.
In the spirit of testing, we have a sample question for you to summarize the exercise for you:
What test preparation reason is the best for your family?
- Better choices
- High performance under pressure
- Return on Investment (ROI)
- Improved self-confidence
- All of the above?
Please schedule an appointment with our team to discover the options and paths that make the most sense for your family.
At PrepMatters, our tutors have logged over 250,000 hours, providing insights and instruction to students one-on-one. My team looks forward to hearing from you.
¹ de Visé, Daniel. “In college admissions, ‘test-optional’ is the new normal.” The Hill, 2 December 2022, https://thehill.com/changing-america/enrichment/education/3758713-in-college-admissions-test-optional-is-the-new-normal/. Accessed 12 July 2023.
² Merryman, Ashley. “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart? (Published 2013).” The New York Times, 6 February 2013, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/magazine/why-can-some-kids-handle-pressure-while-others-fall-apart.html. Accessed 12 July 2023
³ “Office of University Scholarships.” Office of University Scholarships | Auburn University, 3 November 2022, https://www.auburn.edu/scholarship/undergraduate/competitive-merit.php. Accessed 12 July 2023.