Colleges are trending away from the SAT/ACT requirement. Here’s what it means for applicants.

By Peter Hubbell, Apply:you

Columbia University recently announced that it was permanently dropping its SAT/ACT testing requirement, a high-profile move that may well be the tipping point in the accelerating shift away from the established practice of using quantitative metrics to evaluate an applicant’s potential. In lieu of test scores, colleges are embracing what they say will be a more “holistic” review process that will have them looking more closely at applicants’ “intangible” strengths. This new way of evaluating applications means that students will need to prepare them differently, but things are changing so quickly that many aren’t clear on what needs to change. Apply:you has been meeting with admissions leaders at some of the country’s most selective colleges, and based on what we’ve learned, here’s what we advise:

Reapply the time you would have spent on SAT/ACT prep to application requirements that matter more.

Up until now, the accepted rule of thumb was to always submit your test scores since a failure to do so would signal that you must have performed badly. Not anymore. Most of the test optional schools claim they aren’t even considering the scores that they do receive, and one highly selective college told us that 86% of their recently accepted class did not submit test scores. Your student’s day is already over-booked, so start thinking about pulling back from the time-consuming SAT/ACT test prep that you might have been planning. Instead, re-allocate their energy to application elements that now matter more e.g. their GPA, grades in AP or college-prep courses, the difficulty of their curriculum, extracurricular commitment and demonstrated interest. Over-extended kids have limited intellectual capacity; help them make the smart choices that will make the biggest difference.

Re-think the objective: colleges don’t admit transcripts, they admit compelling students.

Given the rise in application numbers, most colleges have too many academically qualified applicants for too few openings. In the new world of a more purposeful, holistic evaluation of applications, colleges aren’t merely looking for talented students, the're looking for talent with more dimension and depth, e.g. the well-rounded student, squared.

To meet this high standard, your child’s application will need to go beyond their WHAT (a list of what they have done) to also explain HOW and WHY they’ve done what they’ve done. For example, while it’s impressive that your child was adventurous enough to attend Outward Bound (What), colleges also want to understand what they did to make the most of the experience (How) and what it was that motivated them to put themself at risk in nature in the first place (Why). Done well, explanations of the How and the Why add dimension to the What, helping admissions counselors to gain a more holistic and compelling impression of who the applicant is and what drives them.

Write as if acceptance depends on it, because it does.

With the void created by the absence of the SAT/ACT scores, the creative writing aspects of the application have become even more important in creating a favorable impression; this can include the main essay/personal statement as well as supplemental questions and the graded writing sample.

Many believe that these written submissions are the colleges’ way of assessing the applicants’ writing skills. Instead, they serve as a way for admissions counselors to get to know the applicant better, to learn something about them that’s not evident in their transcript and activities. When asked to describe what they want to see in an essay, admissions counselors tell us that:

“the best essay is one that helps us understand you. One that describes you so effectively that we have a clear image of who you are, almost as if we were in the same room together. Tell us something interesting about you that’s so irresistible that we’ll want to meet and become friends.

As such, you will need to approach the essay - not as a writing exercise - but as an opportunity to tell a highly interesting and engaging story that helps college admissions counselors get to know you better and like you more. This same approach applies to supplemental questions like “Why are you interested in our college?” Absent test scores, applicants will need to take full advantage of every piece of real-estate on the application to favorably impress the admissions committee. Colleges have raised the bar on what they expect from your writing, so you’ll need to hold yourself to a higher standard. As we always advise, “don’t tell them something; make them feel something.”

Today is the advent of a new era in college admissions, and in change, there is opportunity. The inertia of doing things the way they’ve always been done will take time to abate, so it’s expected that many applicants will continue to emphasize their SAT/ACT scores. To continue the physics metaphor, for every action there’s an opposite and equal reaction, but you don’t need to be a STEM whiz to know that colleges are going to be looking more closely at other criteria to make up for the absence of test scores. The review dynamic is shifting away from a quantitative assessment to one that’s more qualitative than ever before, and nothing signals quality like a beautiful piece of creative storytelling. The college essay has never been more important than it is now, which is why the most motivated applicants are seeking out the competitive advantage of the industry’s most innovative writing coaches.