Insider Secrets of College Admissions–Edition #1: What will replace the SAT?

by Neil Chyten 

Let’s face it: colleges don’t like to make mistakes. As such, admissions offices have had a longstanding love affair with data which is perceived to be a panacea for accurate admissions decision making. Thus, SAT, ACT, and other tests including Subject Tests and APs, along with GPAs, have long held positions of prominence among factors considered critical by college gatekeepers. And yet, the SAT keeps changing.  Does this mean that the characteristics of a good student are changing as well?    

From its introduction in 1926, through the current incarnation, the SAT, America’s most iconic test, has undergone eight revisions. Prior to the current 2016 upgrade, the last round of changes occurred in 2005, when analogies were eliminated and a writing section was added. In 1952, another set of profound changes formed the basis for the verbal section that would stay with the SAT in one form or another until now. 

The SAT was originally referred to as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. It was designed to measure the kind of thinking that would guarantee success at America’s most elite colleges. That was the idea anyway, when it was first administered to approximately 8,000 students in 1926. Back then, Calvin Coolidge was president of the United States, the Great American Depression had not yet occurred, and Ford’s Model T was the most popular car in the world. Ninety-five years later, the SAT is taken by millions of students in more than 175 countries, each hoping that a strong performance will give them the boost they need to rise above their peers and help them gain admission into a college of their dreams. Then came COVID 19 and all of a sudden, the “Dump the SAT” movement grew wings the size of a Boeing 787. Most colleges across the US announced that they would be test optional at least for the time being. We fully expect that most of these colleges will remain test optional for the foreseeable future. Could this lead to the demise of the SAT, much to the delight of many? Very possibly, the answer is yes.

This distinct possibility leads to the question, what data or other characteristic(s) will replace SAT scores as a somewhat objective measure of a student’s academic ability? For those of us in admissions, this is the question of the decade. For longer than any of us can remember or care to admit, we have been telling our students that high SAT scores are a prerequisite for elite college admission. Further, isn’t the information that they have been providing for nearly a century useful? If so, how can you just eliminate it without replacing it with some other product, algorithm, or crystal ball? Also, that would most certainly bestow credibility upon those who have been critical or leery of the SAT’s value as a predictive tool, and those who have been critical of the SAT’s bias toward families who can afford test prep classes or tutors whose costs can soar into the thousands of dollars. 

For now, let’s look at the short term. For the next year or so, colleges will be considering applications from more and more students without SAT scores. Regardless of the long-term solution, the short-term reality is that colleges will have to make decisions with less data. That can only mean one thing—that one or more other factors will increase in significance. It is an absolute certainty that GPA will be one of those factors. So, of course, will be teacher recommendations. Extracurricular activities will almost certainly be scrutinized more closely and considered more crucially. Could it be that more colleges will require a personal interview?  Likely, yes, albeit over the computer.  Could it be that a new generation of admission tests may be developed? Absolutely. If so, you can rest assured that they would bear no resemblance to the current SAT or ACT. Perhaps a new test will borrow elements from ERB’s Character Skills Snapshot, or the Wunderlich, or one of the many personality assessment tests currently on the market. 

My advice to students who will be applying to college over the next two years is to provide their teachers with reasons to write exceptional recommendation letters. I would advise them to undertake activities that, collectively, tell a story of passionate pursuit of a demonstrable goal. I would advise them to treat COVID-19 as an opportunity to rise up in stature rather than to give up in fear. I would advise them to listen closely to the signals coming from every fiber of their bodies that are steering them in the direction of a lifetime pursuit of passion. I would make them aware of the fact that every other aspect of their application must make up for the lack of data resulting from the lost opportunities to take the SAT one or more times. I would advise them to take AP courses, study for AP tests, and to utilize their summers in the most productive means possible. I understand that this is a lot to ask of a student whose life has been so dramatically disrupted by a pandemic that is far too large to wrap our arms or our brains around at this time. Nonetheless, it is the reality for the class of 2021, 2022, and possibly 2023.

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