Standardized Tests Aren't Required for Admissions. But You Still Might Want to Take the SAT/ACT (and AP Tests too, if you can).
7 min read
It’s a rite of spring: selective US colleges are sending out undergraduate offer letters. But admissions this year has been turned upside down by the pandemic. One of the biggest consequences has been the retreat of standardized testing. For decades, most selective US universities have required the SAT or ACT: three-hour tests of a student’s literacy, writing, and mathematical reasoning skills, typically taken in the year prior to submitting college applications. Look up colleges on any comparison website, and you will soon find the SAT “range”: the middle 50% of scores achieved by enrolled students.
Concerned about evidence that the exams unfairly disadvantage less privileged students, a handful of selective universities have stopped requiring the test in the last decade. The University of Chicago (ranked 10th globally by the Times Higher Education) went “test-optional” in 2018. The prestigious University of California system also set out on a path to limiting or eliminating the use of the SAT/ACT before the pandemic hit, joining about half of the nation’s less-selective colleges.
Meanwhile the SAT Subject Tests, which focus on content knowledge and more advanced subject-specific skills, went from being a mandatory part of the admissions process at selective colleges as recently as five years ago to optional almost everywhere. In a surprise move in January, they were discontinued.
This slow trend away from testing has taken a giant leap during the pandemic. The SAT and ACT cannot (yet) be taken online, and in-person testing has been shut down across much of the world for much of the last year. Millions of applicants have been unable to take the exams, and as a result virtually all US universities have not required test results for entry in 2021. More than 1300 colleges, including the entire Ivy League and Stanford, have already said that they will be test-optional for the 2021-22 cycle as well.
These developments are a pandemic silver lining for many US students. Many see their chance to get accepted to their dream schools, free of the expectation that they’ll have to achieve a stratospheric SAT or ACT score to have a shot. Students are applying to more universities—sometime as many as 15 or 20 instead of the more usual 5 or 10. (This isn’t necessarily a good idea, but that’s another conversation.) Total applications to top US colleges have jumped up as a result. But how is this playing out for international applicants? They also now have the option of not submitting test scores, but at the same time they face stiffer competition than ever – and still need to differentiate themselves from other applicants.
It’s not easy to navigate elite university admissions as an international student. At Oxford University in the UK, where I headed up the International Strategy team until 2017, I saw how international students, like less-privileged UK students, struggle through a tricky admissions process that advantages those with the knowledge and confidence to navigate it. The result: international applicants gain undergraduate admission to Oxford at less than half the rate of UK applicants. It’s a similar story at the most selective US universities, where international admissions rates are estimated to average 3-6%, even lower than the overall acceptance rates of 5-10%.
So how should international students think about standardized tests as they chart their path to a US college? Drawing on one application cycle of data, three main observations jump out. They may appear contradictory, but stay with me.
1. The SAT/ACT really is optional: you can get in without submitting a score
Overall, only 44% of students who applied through the Common Application (used by most selective colleges) submitted SAT/ACT test scores during the 2020-21 admissions cycle. At selective schools, the number is a bit higher—around half—and almost as many have been admitted. Between 30% and 70% of early applicants to three top universities this autumn (Tufts, Notre Dame, and Boston University) were admitted without an SAT or ACT score. One admissions director says it was a relief to go test-optional: “I think that if you talk to admissions people they will say they are happy to be rid of the test because…they don’t have to worry about that average test score going down, they can find students who are interesting and who would bring something really valuable to the campus, but who may not have that stellar score.”
Colleges often judge that international students can “bring something really valuable” to campus because of their background. While colleges face pressure to increase the number of US students from diverse backgrounds (particularly students from less-represented ethnic, regional, and socioeconomic groups) they prize diversity of experience and perspective more generally, and international students bring a different cultural context and often fluency in multiple languages. This is especially true for students from less-represented countries; one of my students from Myanmar, for example, made good on a long-shot bid to gain admission to an Ivy League school.
For international students who don’t have a top SAT/ACT score, test-optional policies can open a new window of opportunity. A German student I work with took the SAT, didn’t score as well as she liked, and then applied to a range of selective US colleges. On the strength of a compelling personal narrative and a good-but-not-stellar academic record, she has been already been accepted at the University of Richmond, which offers one of the country’s best undergraduate business programs.
A survey of admissions and enrolment directors, commissioned by the ACT, predicts that most schools will not immediately revert to requiring test scores when COVID allows: “Test-optional institutions are unlikely to return to test-required, although COVID-driven institutions note uncertainty in determining future policies.”
2. But a good SAT/ACT score is still a real advantage, especially for international students
Many college admissions officers have used SAT/ACT scores for their whole careers as a part of their assessments. At elite public universities these scores along with high school courses/grades have often formed the entire basis for admissions decisions, while at private universities they have been one important factor among others such as extracurricular activities and essays. Even in the midst of the pandemic, most colleges say that they still consider SAT/ACT scores, which means that a good score helps, and at many schools it can help a lot.
Colleges can be nervous about whether international students are a good bet, especially if they come from a little-known school, studied an unfamiliar curriculum, and are backed by reference letters from teachers whose knowledge of how to be persuasive to a US college may be as imperfect as their English. Jeremiah Quinlan, Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, says that because they have applicants from all over the world, “it’s useful to have something that’s consistent among applicants, even when we’re aware of how imperfect and limited that metric can be. It can be especially valuable since our internal research…shows that the tests are predictive of Yale performance, above and beyond high school GPA.” (GPA is grade-point average, the standard US measure of academic performance.) A solid SAT/ACT score reassures colleges that a student’s academic preparation is comparable to top US students. And the demanding English language sections of these exams also tell a college that good performers have the language fluency to cope; some colleges, like Columbia, waive their English language testing requirement for international students with high SAT/ACT scores.
Yale’s Quinlan went on to say, “It is often common that strong test scores help boost the case of a student from an underrepresented background who doesn’t have other strong and compelling elements in their file, and elevate them in the [admission] committee’s eyes because the testing is the data point that sort of affirms their ability to do well on a college campus.” Proponents of the SAT like Quinlan are thinking first of underrepresented domestic students, but the same logic applies to international kids: a top SAT/ACT score can be a difference-maker.
Some international students I work with have gone to extraordinary lengths to take the SAT during the pandemic, flying to other cities that still offer it after it was cancelled or fully booked-up locally. One very determined family even sent their student across the Atlantic Ocean to take it, jet-lagged, after landing late the previous night. (You can imagine how that went.)
3. Taking Advanced Placement (AP) exams could be your ace in the hole
Taken by 2.6 million students each year, the APs (like the not-so-dearly departed SAT Subject Tests) test subject matter expertise and skills. Subjects include English Language / Literature, History, Mathematics, and a range of social science and science subjects. Originally conceived as a way for high school students to take and get credit for college-level coursework, APs have also long been an indicator of academic achievement valued by college admissions officers.
Both students and colleges see AP courses/exams as a valuable signal to colleges of academic rigor. A 2018 survey by Inside Higher Ed found that 67% of college counselors said that students have come to believe that AP or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses are “essential” for college admissions. (Only a small fraction of US high schools offer the IB.) The same survey found that seventy percent of admissions officers “considered AP courses to be rigorous.”
While international students have taken the SAT and ACT for many years, AP exams are mostly taken by students in American high schools, whether in the US or following a US curriculum abroad. In 2019, about 130,000 AP exams were taken by international students. While this is just 3% of the total, AP exams have been growing fast in popularity outside the US, with test volume up 150% since 2010. Gluttons for punishment can earn an AP International Diploma (a bit like an International Baccalaureate Diploma) by taking and scoring well on five or more AP exams chosen from four subject areas.
By making the effort to take AP tests, students get a boost in admission regardless of the scores they achieve, because it shows that they are willing to take on the challenge of college-level content. This benefit of simply “showing up” may be even bigger for international students when they seek out and prepare for their exam on their own. Good AP exam scores of 4 or 5 are another helpful piece of evidence: like the SAT or ACT, they show that a student belongs academically with the top tier of US high school graduates, but they also reflect content knowledge valuable for success in the applicant’s intended field of study. With the SAT/ACT diminished as a universal metric, and application volume up, APs will likely be decisive in more admissions decisions in the coming years.
The College Board, which administers the AP exams as well as the SAT, has shown an admirably flexible approach to AP testing during the pandemic, with digital exams available to some students to take at home. Most students take AP exams at the culmination of courses designed specifically around the AP curriculum. (AP exams are only offered in May/June, while the SAT/ACT are offered year-round.) However APs can be taken by international students studying on their own, who must register with a school that acts as an AP test centre; the school typically decides whether to make the digital version available if in-person testing is not possible. The number of international test centres is limited (India only has 13, for example), so for students not enrolled in a school that offers AP exams, it can be inconvenient. At least students can get help from online courses designed specifically to prepare them for the AP exams. There are many such courses; a list of courses recommended by College Board to prepare for AP Computer Science Principles, for example, are listed here.
It’s worth celebrating that applicants are no longer chained to the SAT or ACT. But don’t sound the death knell for standardized tests in US college admissions just yet. Especially for international students, achieving good scores on these exams – and on AP exams – is still a tried-and-true way of boosting application chances at top US colleges.