The Return of SAT/ACT Requirements: A Vibe Shift Towards Testing

The Return of SAT/ACT Requirements: A Vibe Shift Towards Testing

Colleges are reinstating SAT/ACT requirements as they help identify promising students. The changing admissions landscape requires students to adapt and seek expert guidance for test preparation.

Charly Kuecks
May 14, 2024

Today’s high school students have seen more whiplash around how colleges make their admissions decisions than any other generation alive today. It’s Econ 101: the demand curve for the top name-brand colleges exploded in the past four years, while the supply has remained flat. If you’re currently at the beginning of the process of exploring where you’d like to go to university, or if you're the parent of such a student, you might have some questions about so-called “test optional” colleges and how this landscape is shifting. 

The TL;DR is that the most selective universities realized that their own data showed that looking at standardized test scores (the ACT or SAT in the U.S., but we’ll use the SAT in this article) actually helps other aims such as admitting the most promising applicants from lower income backgrounds. Regardless of your overall profile, we recommend preparing for the test and submitting your SAT/ACT scores. Let’s break it down:

1. The SAT Resurgence: Why the Return?


The College Board, the non-profit organization which administers both the SAT and the Advanced Placement exams, was left scrambling in the spring of 2020 when states ordered lockdowns and they had not yet implemented a digital version of the exam. If you have an older sibling currently in college, you might remember how their educational plans were thrown into turmoil — this was a Black Swan-style event that no one could have adequately planned for.

Because of this, many top colleges — including Ivy League schools, such as Brown University — dropped their standardized testing requirements over the next couple of years. This was unlikely to have happened pre-COVID, but provided a sort of natural experiment: would the college class of ‘24 be more successful than the test-required cohorts before them?

In a word, no. Here’s what a leader at Brown said in the Washington Post about his college’s decision to bring back the SAT requirement:

“Depriving admissions officers of SAT and ACT scores meant they were less able to evaluate an applicant’s chances of thriving at Brown, Provost Francis J. Doyle III said in an interview this month.“Our analysis suggested our admissions could be more effective if we brought back testing as an instrument,” Doyle said.”

So, what are advantages to students in a test-required environment?

2. Pros of Requiring the SAT/ACT: The Least-Bad Option

No metric for evaluating high school students is perfect: the reality is that as high school grades have inflated, extracurricular activities have proliferated, and freshman classes have remained flat, college admissions are much more competitive, from CU-Boulder to Colgate to Cornell.

But why would we defend the SAT as part of a student’s profile? Because it’s actually the least unfair of the many parts of the admissions process.

Sports and clubs? Public high schools in low-income communities are not going to be as well-resourced as a prep school in Manhattan, making those opportunities favoring the “haves.”

A.P.s and other Honors classes? Some states, like Washington State, have decreased the availability of gifted and talented tracks — so students might have less shiny course resumes through no fault of their own.

Demographics? Colleges have touted their commitment to holistic admissions, while at the same time students can obviously not change their Census characteristics, so there’s no sense stressing about something you can’t change.

That leaves a test like the SAT or ACT — exams that measure verbal ability and math skills that are covered in all districts throughout the country, and have strong correlations with success in college.

So why is it such a hot button topic?

3. The Critics' Perspective: Why the SAT Is a Reflection of Society

Understanding why these tests started, as well as the arguments in favor of test-optional policies, can help to clarify why we still recommend individual students prep for the SAT and submit scores.

The most dedicated anti-testing arguments boil down to critiques of society writ large — namely that the college admissions “mania,” as it’s often called, encourages a cutthroat view of not just high school, but American society. Akil Bello, the spokesman for a pro-test-optional group, put it this way in Inside Higher Ed:

“Those dedicated to [social] sorting tend to believe in standardized tests. They tend to look not at whom the tests hurt or what the tests miss but instead their sorting power. Research from the College Board and from Harvard’s Opportunity Insights group both take this approach, correlating SAT performance to measures of success without defining whether these measures are meaningful or good.”

At Mindspire, we’re not here to declare that the score you get on the SAT or ACT — especially if you take it cold! — is the end-all and be-all of your worth as a student or person. It’s simply a tool — and any quantitative measurement tool will reflect underlying differences in the population being measured.

We argue that students can decide what is meaningful to them, and that since a competitive score is so strongly correlated with successfully graduating from a top college, it can help students understand not just where they have a chance of getting admitted, but also increase the likelihood of their flourishing in college.

So now that the SAT is back at Harvard, Yale, and the University of Florida, what can a student do to navigate this shift?

4. Impact on Students: Navigating the Vibe Shift


One heuristic to acknowledge is that students whose families can afford test prep tutors and/or independent college counselors benefit from the expertise that they or their parents might not get from a cursory Google search. Dartmouth is an Ivy League school, and its 25th percentile SAT score is 1500, and the 75th percentile score is 1580. (That means only one in four admitted students scored below a 1500.) Understandably, students scoring in the 1400s might assume they have no shot. This is a mistake:

“Dartmouth found that rejected low-income students who omitted SAT scores but scored in the 1400s would otherwise have been admitted. The school would have taken those scores into account had the students reported them.”

The most important thing you can do in any situation is to know what you can control

Let’s say you start at a 1300 on a practice SAT and work with a tutor to bring your score up, but aren’t sure if you can crack a 1500. A 1460, for example, is a 97th percentile SAT score — and if you practice the format of the new digital SAT with a dedicated test prep tutor, set that as your target score, and do prep under timed conditions, you have a much better chance of attaining your best possible score. Relying on experts who can then help you decide whether or not to submit the score, depending on all the other factors of your profile, can not only reduce stress on test day, it can help you feel more confident about overcoming challenges in general.

5. Adapting to a Changing Landscape: The Only  Constant Is Change

Between the botched rollout of the new FAFSA financial aid form, canceled commencement ceremonies, and each university conducting its own review of testing policies, it can be a headache for students and their guardians to navigate this process in 2024. The best advice we have? Enjoy the process. College should be an exciting time of self-discovery and a step towards a fulfilling career. Taking a test to get into a college that will be a great fit should be seen as a means to an end – not just a diploma for its own sake, but four years of diving deep into subjects that interest you, challenge you, and prepare you to participate in civic life.

We predict that as goes Harvard, so goes the nation. One notable exception is that public colleges in the state of California are, as of spring of 2024, test-blind, which means they will not accept standardized scores, period. If you are applying to any of these colleges, reach out to us and we can make recommendations for your overall strategy. Remember the self-rejecting Dartmouth applicants? Don’t try to outwit the ad coms.

6.  Looking Ahead: The Future of Standardized Testing in Higher Education

Overall, the 2023-’24 school year has seen a lot of tension on college campuses, from the boardrooms to the quads. However, the experiments of remote learning, test-optional admissions, and other shifts have led college leaders to examine the data and conclude that encouraging applicants to take the SAT/ACT and submit their scores was, in fact, better than the alternative.

If you have test anxiety, are unfamiliar with the new digital SAT format, or simply have a lot you’re juggling as a high school junior or senior, we are happy to work with you to formulate a plan to work one on one with a tutor at Mindspire to help you achieve your dream score. Because we know that that’s not the end of your dreams, but just the beginning. 

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