When schools began closing in early 2020, we all had the hope that things could return to normal within a few months. As we transition from 2020 to 2021, however, we are faced with the sober reality that online instruction, virtual learning, and remote meetings are now the “new normal.”
Colleges and universities have had to makes significant adjustments across the board, from academics to athletics to admissions. In addition to conducting virtual campus tours and remote student interviews, many schools have also revised their college requirements. In light of test cancellations and other obstacles created by the pandemic, more than half of all four-year colleges have decided to go “test-optional” for Fall 2021 admissions—and possibly beyond.
With this information in hand, you are probably like a lot of students, wondering, “Do I need to take the SAT?” Well, there are many factors that go into making such a decision. In order to you to make an informed decision, you’ll need to know just what purpose the SAT serves and how it contributes to what colleges consider when they evaluate applicants.
The better question may be whether you should take the test rather than whether you’re required to do so.
The Purpose of the SAT Is To Measure Readiness for College
More than a century ago, the College Board was founded in order to administratively standardize the college admissions process. Several decades after its founding in 1900, the organization adopted the SAT as a way to evaluate college readiness.
Some SAT history
Originally developed as an intelligence test for American military recruits during World War I, the SAT was first administered to high school students in 1926. Harvard University began using the test in 1934 to select students for scholarships, and by the next year the school was requiring all candidates to take the SAT. With the chartering of the Educational Testing Service in 1948, the SAT was well on its way to becoming the basic college admissions device for millions of students.
In 1959, the ACT (originally American College Test) was developed as an alternative to the SAT. Rather than testing cognitive reasoning, however, the ACT would test students on information they actually learned—or were supposed to learn—in school. While both tests have undergone many changes since then, the biggest one was in 2016 when the SAT became a college-readiness test.
The College Board’s massive overhaul to the test’s format made it much more similar to the ACT. While there still are significant differences between the SAT and ACT, both tests now have the same purpose: to measure a high school student’s readiness for college, and to provide colleges with one common data point that can be used to compare all applicants.
For over 60 years now, the SAT has been a fixture on high school students’ college admissions applications. Regardless of school-specific factors such as GPA, extracurricular activities, and achievement awards, colleges can use the test to compare prospective students from all over the globe.
An SAT score ranges from 400-1600, with both the Math sections (No Calculator and Calculator) and the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing sections (Reading and Writing & Language) counting for 200-800 points each. Colleges vary widely on SAT scoring requirements, with the most elite institutions limiting the field to those with composite scores around 1500.
How many times can you take the SAT?
Technically, up to 12 times. Whether you’re having difficulty reaching the SAT benchmark scores (480 Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, 530 Math), or you just need a boost to hit the target score for your preferred school, you can essentially do as many retakes as you please.
Colleges Have Been Trending Toward Test-Optional for Several Years
Over the last 15 years, the discussion over equity in testing has led to more colleges making it optional for students to submit SAT and ACT scores on their applications. Such policy changes stem from a critique of the tests as discriminatory against certain minorities and students of low socioeconomic status.
Is the SAT fair?
Critics say the test does little more than reinforce the ways race and class already shape American society, while others believe that standardized tests in general are merely the most prominent measurable symptom of systemic inequity. While the designers and caretakers of both the SAT and ACT are seeking to address this issue, no meaningful change has taken place yet. In response to the perceived inequity of college-readiness tests, about 40% of the nation’s schools have made such tests optional for applicants.
What does “Test-Optional” mean?
Due to all the disruptions caused by the pandemic, many other colleges have temporarily suspended SAT requirements. Now more than half of American colleges and universities are test-optional in some way, so it’s best to check first in order to determine if the colleges you’re interested in require a test score on their applications.
There are actually four levels when it comes to how colleges handle test scores.
- Test-required: All applicants must submit an SAT or ACT score, with each college having its own standards on what scores qualify students for acceptance.
- Test-optional: Students get to decide whether they want to submit test scores with their application. While such schools will almost always consider submitted SAT and ACT scores, they tend to focus on factors they believe are stronger predictors of a student’s readiness for college: grades, coursework, essays, and recommendations.
- Test-flexible: Students are able to submit other test scores in place of the SAT or ACT, such as Advanced Placements tests, International Baccalaureate exams, or SAT Subject Tests.
- Test-blind: Such colleges (less than 1% of all schools) will not consider test scores, even if you submit them.
Keep in mind that “test-optional” is a broad category, though, with policies differing significantly from college to college. Some schools still require test scores in certain situations, such as for students pursuing specific majors, or for international or even out-of-state students. Others may use the SAT or ACT as a placement exam for the freshman class.
Some test-optional schools may use an index calculated from your GPA, test scores, and class rank to determine whether you are required to submit test scores. In some cases, colleges ask for additional materials instead of test scores, such as samples of academic work, scientific research, or additional recommendation letters.
Many schools have changed or lifted some of these restrictions in 2020, so be sure to check with the college to confirm how it will use test scores in the admissions process. Colleges and universities still want as much information about you as possible, however, so it’s likely that other parts of your application—your grades, essays, extracurricular activities, and achievements—will be closely scrutinized to determine whether the college chooses to admit you.
Even With Current Trend, There Are Still Benefits to Taking the SAT
First and foremost, submitting SAT (and ACT) scores routinely increases a student’s chances of being admitted to college.
Second, taking the SAT may also help with financial aid. Even at test-optional schools, students who submit test scores are more likely to receive financial aid and place out of remedial and introductory courses.
For students with low grade-point averages, a high test score can provide admissions officers with additional information about their potential to succeed in college.
In the end, it’s important to remember that few colleges and universities have completely done away with standardized tests as tool for assessing potential students.
So, why take the SAT if it’s optional?
The quick answer is that just because SAT scores aren’t required on a college application doesn’t mean admissions officers totally disregard them. The SAT is still tied to college placement in a number of ways.
- Graduation requirement: Some high schools require students to take the SAT in order to graduate, while a handful of others use the test as a sort of cumulative exam. Like colleges, some high schools have dropped the requirement in light of COVID-19, so it’s best to make sure you know whether you need to take either the SAT or ACT in order to graduate highs school.
- Scholarships: If you are specifically aiming for a National Merit Scholarship, you’ll need to take the PSAT, which doubles as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (NMSQT). As a general rule, make you sure to confirm all requirements in advance, as many test-optional colleges are still considering test scores when awarding merit scholarships. Don’t put yourself at a disadvantage by not submitting your SAT scores.
- Determining personal qualification: Although some schools do accept SAT alternatives on applications, the best gauge of personal fit for a particular college is to look at the range of SAT scores they usually accept. For example, if your SAT score is above average—say, a 1200—but the college you’re applying lists the average score for applicants at 1450, you may want to consider whether you can handle the academic rigors of such an institution. Yes, many schools have suspended SAT requirements, but their standards are still evident in the scores that qualifying students normally have to achieve.
Prep With An Expert Tutor If You Choose to Take or Retake the SAT
Ultimately, the SAT is a test of how well you can take the SAT, so the more you practice, the more you will recognize the different question types and thus settle more quickly on the right strategy.
There are plenty of free SAT resources available online, particularly the College Board’s Official Practice Tests. All tests are available for download online, along with the answer keys, explanations, and tables to determine your scaled scores. An expert SAT tutor gives you the best chance of achieving your target score by helping you review and evaluate your SAT results and practice tests.
While you may recognize your mistakes after looking at the answers, a tutor can better identify which strategies may have been more appropriate so you can make quick and efficient strategy decisions.
The most common type of help needed for the SAT is in math
If you’re like most students, you are especially in need of help with SAT Math prep. In addition to utilizing the excellent prep materials out there, you’ll want the extra edge of an SAT math tutor who can teach you how to study for the SAT. An experienced tutor will help you make a decision on SAT vs. ACT based upon all the differences between the math sections, as well as instruct you on how to use your graphing calculator most effectively.
And thanks to the development of powerful online learning platforms, your SAT tutoring can be just as effective as if your tutor was right next to you.
Taking The SAT?
For all the latest information on test center availability, capacity, and potential closures, go to the College Board website. There you will also find updates on test center health and safety requirements, including Covid safety screenings on location.
Whether your choice college still requires the SAT or has gone test-optional, you will want the advantage that comes with including your scores on your application. With a skilled tutor directing the SAT prep process and showing you the best test-taking strategies and time-management skills, you will be in just the right position to attain the highest possible score on your next test.