Monday morning Q&A: Subject Tests “recommended”?

Jean asks,

“I hear all the time that when a college says that Subject Tests are “recommended,” it actually means “required.” But I’d like to see some actual evidence of that. Do you know of students who’ve been rejected without taking these tests and believed that it hurt them? If a student has a very high GPA, high SAT scores, and all 4’s and 5’s in multiple AP exams, it truly seems like overkill.”

Good question, Jean. I find that “recommending” Subject Tests is frustratingly vague. There’s enough existing confusion in the college admissions process without colleges leaving students unsure whether or not an important choice like this will somehow work against them.

Unfortunately, while I’ve occasionally met students who were not admitted and believed it might have been because they elected not to submit Subject Test scores, I’d be very cautious making a testing decision based on anecdotal evidence. It’s not uncommon for students to draw conclusions about how colleges arrived at an admissions decision, but those conclusions are usually dubious at best. The truth is that the only people who know the actual reasons behind any admissions decisions are the committee members who were in the room when the decision was made. This works both ways, too—students who submit Subject Test scores and are ultimately admitted have no way of knowing if or how much those scores helped.

But here’s a potentially good strategy to use.

1. First, read the testing requirements on the school’s website very carefully.

For example, based on the language I’ve pasted here from their websites, which of these schools seems to mean “required” when they say “recommended”?

Georgetown (the typos are as they appeared on the site):

It is strongly recommended that all candidates, whether they have taken the SAT Reasoning Test or the ACT, submit three SAT Subject Tests scores. The scores from writing portion on the SAT Reasoning Test and the optional writing portion of the ACT will not be used in place of a Subject Test.

Stanford:

SAT Subject Tests are recommended but not required. Applicants who do not take SAT Subject Tests will not be at a disadvantage. Because SAT Subject Tests are optional, applicants may use Score Choice to selectively send their SAT Subject Test scores.

Yale:

SAT Subject Tests are recommended but not required. Applicants who do not take SAT Subject Tests will not be disadvantaged in the application process. We will consider your application on the basis of the other testing, and all the other information, that we receive with your application. You may wish to consider whether there are particular areas of academic strength you would like to demonstrate to the Admissions Committee. Subject Tests can be one way to convey that strength. 

While Stanford and Yale come out and say that a lack of Subject Test scores won’t be held against an applicant, Georgetown’s language reads to me like a student would have a hard time getting admitted without those scores.

2. How strong is the student relative to the others in the college’s applicant pool?

A student with a very high GPA, high SAT scores, and all 4’s and 5’s in multiple AP exams (as you described in your question) is likely already a very strong candidate at Lafayette, University of Delaware, and University of Georgia, all of which recommend but do not require Subject Tests. But that same student is not a strong candidate at Caltech, Duke, or Penn, where even valedictorians and students with perfect test scores are routinely turned away.

3. And finally, have your student ask, “If I don’t submit Subject Test scores and ultimately am not admitted, will I regret that choice?”

I am all for a student opting out of the testing craze. If your student were to decide that the testing is, in fact, overkill, that she’s simply not going to play that game, and that she would happily attend another college if one of those on the “recommended but not required” list said no, I would stand up and cheer.

But if she wants to know that she did everything she possibly could have done to gain admission to particular schools, and if she’s proven to have both smarts and the test-taking gene (which it sounds like she does), I’d probably have her submit those scores. Many of the schools that have this “recommended” Subject Test policy are among the most selective in the country (Brown, Dartmouth, Duke, Northwestern, Stanford, Princeton, etc.). Those are schools that ultimately need to find reasons to say no to droves of applicants. If a student really wants to attend one of those schools, be careful making any testing decision that could give them that reason.

Thanks for your question, Jean. I’ll answer a different question next week. Here’s the form for readers to submit one of their own.

Good and bad testing news

The Atlantic’s “When Grades Don’t Show The Whole Picture” makes a compelling argument for all the ways that SAT scores are good for, among other things, offsetting grade inflation, allowing students of all backgrounds to showcase their strengths, and providing colleges with a useful evaluation tool. Except it’s not an article at all—it’s an advertisement from the College Board (with accompanying tiny print that indicates so). The quality of this news is bad. In fact, it’s not news at all. It’s advertising.

Why did they do an advertisement? Because the SAT is big business (the College Board’s 2015 revenues were over $915 million). After spending years in second place, the SAT’s main competition, the ACT, has surpassed the SAT’s popularity in recent years. And nearly 1,000 colleges are now test-optional for many or all applicants. Whether a huge company makes razors, cars, hotels, or tests, advertising is a popular strategy to protect—or to reclaim—market share.

I mention this because at colleges with applications that go beyond just grades and test scores—those that require descriptions of your activities, lists of your honors or awards, essays, letters of recommendation, interviews, etc.—the evaluation process is a personal one. Most of the human beings reading the applications at these schools are genuinely committed to understanding the human beings behind those apps. They care about context. They care about your environment and your upbringing. They care about the circumstances that have impacted your education. They’re looking at your numbers, but also looking at the person. It’s not a meritocracy and it’s not infallible, but at the very least it’s driven by good people trying to do the right thing.

Standardized test scores don’t measure the whole you. They don’t care how you’ve grown up, what opportunities you’ve had or missed out on, or whether you’re a committed student who works hard. They don’t care if you didn’t have the money to spend on expensive preparation or whether you work 30 hours a week to help support your family. They don’t care whether you’re a good person who treats people right and makes every class or activity you’re in that much better for those around you.

Standardized tests only measure one thing well—how good you are at taking standardized tests.

So if you’re a good test-taker, congratulations. You have one less thing to worry about and you should show off that skill by nailing your standardized tests.

But if you’re not a good test-taker, I encourage you (and your parents) to not take your scores personally. Don’t let those scores make you feel bad about yourself. And please don’t obsess so much about transforming yourself into a good test-taker that you ignore school, your activities, your time with your friends and family, and anything else that makes you feel happy and engaged. Test scores are never the most important part of the admissions process–the majority of colleges don’t require high test scores to be admitted, and again, nearly 1,000 schools don’t require test scores at all.

And that’s good testing news.

Monday Morning Q&A: Send test scores now, or later?

Bernice asks:

Should I wait until my SAT or ACT scores arrive before I apply to the top colleges of my choice? Or should I go ahead and apply?

This is a good question, Bernice, one that has both simple and more complex versions of the answer. The simple version is to go ahead and apply. Most colleges will allow you to not only list whatever scores you have, but also list the dates you intend to take future tests. They’ll wait to make a decision until they have all the required test scores, and delaying your application process usually isn’t a good strategy.

But the more complex and college counseling-nuanced version of the answer requires more information, including:

  • Where are you applying?
  • Are you applying to an early action or early decision program?
  • Did you take the tests already? If so, how many times and what are your scores?
  • When do you plan on (re)taking the exam(s)?

So here’s what I recommend you do:

1. Consult the websites of each of your chosen colleges and find out two things—what tests are required, and by what dates do they recommend taking tests and sending scores?

2. Register for the test(s) soon if you haven’t done so already. Fall test dates are popular and you don’t want your preferred location to fill up.

3. Meet with your high school counselor, share your findings, and get her thoughts about whether or not to apply before you have test scores on file.

4. In the meantime, work on your applications. Whether or not you wait to file them is a separate decision from whether or not you start (and complete!) them.

If all of this gets too complex, or if you can’t get the information you need, play it safe and go with the simple answer I shared above—apply now and send your test scores as soon as you have them. You can’t get into college if you don’t submit completed applications by the deadline, and I’d hate for testing confusion to stop you from getting your applications filed on time.

Thanks for the question, Bernice. I’ll answer a different one next Monday. Interested readers can submit their own question here.

When should you take the SAT/ACT?

Our friends at Compass Education Group have a great post that answers one of the most basic college planning questions: “When should I take the SAT/ACT?” Make sure to scroll to the bottom of the page to download the PDF.

Also, College Board is offering its first August administration of the SAT this year. If you’re considering taking that exam, register as soon as possible. It’s expected to be a popular date, and we’ve heard reports of some sites already registered to capacity.

Are some SAT/ACT dates harder than others?

This week, a local news station featured a segment with a private counselor and self-proclaimed college admissions expert who got so many of her facts wrong that it generated widespread criticism on the private Facebook group with thousands of counselors and admissions officers. The most egregious error was the advice that students should avoid taking the SAT or ACT in the fall because the test writers intentionally make those exams more difficult to adjust for the number of seniors (many of whom have completed several AP courses) taking them.

It’s just not true.

“Certain SAT/ACT dates are always easier than others” is a pervasive college planning myth that a number of staunch believers swear they’ve heard from someone reputable. But if it were true, wouldn’t everyone, from students to test prep companies, be capitalizing on it by now?

If you still need convincing, here’s a piece from Bruce Reed of Compass Education Group, one of the most trusted and respected test prep organizations. And if you just want the answer, here it is:

“The concept is complex but the explanation and decision-making can be kept simple: never select a test date based on your assessment of the testing pool on that day. Students don’t influence one another; there is no comparative advantage or disadvantage.”

Try the right self-talk

When you’re nervous about an important event—like taking the SAT, going to your college interview, playing in the finals on the tennis team, etc., what does the voice in your head say? Second-guessing yourself with thoughts like, “I should have studied more” or “I’m probably not as good as the others” definitely won’t help your performance. But pumping yourself up with positivity like, “You can do this!” isn’t actually as effective as a third option.

In this short video, author Dan Pink explains interrogative self-talk, a simple, easy-to-use technique to improve your performance in pressure situations. Research shows that simply asking yourself, “Can you do this?” and then answering the question with all the reasons you’re likely to succeed actually improves the chances that you’ll do just that.

If your nerves sometimes get the best of you before that big test, big game, or any other situation where the pressure is on, why not give interrogative self-talk a try?

Don’t give testing too much time

What would happen if an admissions officer actually saw him or herself as part teacher, someone who didn’t just evaluate applications, but also tried to help applicants understand how the evaluation works, what to expect, and how to approach applications and essays? And most importantly, what if those opinions were honest and unvarnished, and the admissions officers were the type of people who were willing to come out and say, “This is what we like” or “This will annoy us”?

I think that teacher exists over at the University of Virginia’s blog, which is why I share it often here. This week’s entry pointed out something admissions officers at many schools have found—in Q & A sessions, many audiences will swallow up all of that time asking about the ACT and SAT.

“Testing doesn’t warrant getting half the time during a panel program and it doesn’t warrant getting the majority of your head space as you are juggling the academic load and responsibilities that come with being a junior or senior in high school.”

You can read the rest here.

Unnecessary at best, misleading at worst

There’s a reason that nearly 850* U.S. colleges and universities have stopped requiring SAT or ACT scores, with more joining that list every year. Scores on these exams have nothing interesting to tell us beyond what can be learned about an applicant in other ways, particularly when it’s possible to sit down with him or her. Even in purely statistical terms, and even if we’re interested only in predicting future grades and test scores (as opposed to more authentic outcomes), such tests are unnecessary at best, and misleading at worst.”

Whom We Admit, What We Deny: The Meaning of Selective Admissions

*Ed. Note: This number has increased to more than 850 schools since the article was written in 2012.

Do your testing homework

Counselors always recommend that students preparing to apply to college check each school’s website to verify what’s required for admission. What’s the deadline? Do you need letters of recommendation? Are interviews offered? There’s no better, more trustworthy place to find those answers than from the colleges themselves.

But this year, that’s likely to be even more important because of standardized tests.

In March of 2016, the College Board gave the first administration of a completely redesigned SAT. When the results arrived in May, the scores were about 20-80 points higher than they were on the old SAT. So whether a student got a 1000, or 1100, or 1500, it actually wasn’t as good as it would have been on the old version. Here’s the Washington Post’s piece on the score inflation and resulting confusion.

The College Board also released a new table showing how new SAT scores could be compared to ACT scores. But the folks at ACT didn’t agree with those comparisons, and that led to bickering between the Coke and Pepsi of the testing world.

What does all of this mean to you if you’re applying to college this year?

It means that colleges’ testing policies will be in transition this year. How will they compare scores for students who took both the old and new SAT? How will they compare ACT scores to new SAT scores? Will they still require the same exams? Will they still use them the same way? Some or all of those things could be changing with many colleges this fall.

So this year more than ever, it will be very important for students to check the websites of the colleges that interest them, and to pay particular attention to their testing information. If that information is not listed, or if it hasn’t been updated on their website, call the admissions offices of the colleges you intend to apply to (remember, calling the admissions office is a job for students, not parents).

A little bit of drudgery? Maybe. But it won’t take long. And just a little testing homework will leave you certain that you aren’t missing anything.

Advice for bad test-takers

The worst thing about standardized tests is that they make kids who don’t score well feel badly about themselves and about their chances of admission to college. Standardized tests measure how well you take standardized tests and just about nothing else. There are good test-takers and bad test-takers, and they sometimes have wildly overlapping levels of academic achievement.

If you’re one of those students who just didn’t get the elusive standardized testing gene, here are a few steps to take:

1. Remember that you don’t have to be a great test-taker to get into college.
Yes, it’s possible if not likely that your dream school doesn’t admit many bad test-takers, especially if that school is prestigious. But there are over 2,000 colleges to pick from, and the average college admits about 2/3 of its applicants. And according to FairTest, there are currently more than 800 four-year colleges and universities that “do not use the SAT or ACT to admit substantial numbers of bachelor-degree applicants.” That’s good news for students who don’t excel at standardized tests and want to show their strengths in other areas.

2. Do some test prep.
I’m not a fan of just how pervasive test preparation has become. For some students, preparing for the SAT or ACT becomes their most time-consuming activity, and it’s discouraging to think about how much learning, opportunity, and fun they could have experienced otherwise. But the good news is that you have plenty of test-prep options, from expensive tutors, to cheaper courses and books, to quality free prep. Talk with your counselor about college goals and your current testing record. Get her advice about when and how to prepare. And most importantly, keep testing in perspective. Don’t become a professional test-prepper and spend all your time preparing for a multiple choice exam. Test scores are never the most important part of a college application. And nobody ever became a success or a failure based on an SAT or ACT score alone.

3. Excel in your strengths.
So, you’re not good at testing. What are you good at? History? Athletics? Music, leadership or karate? Go excel there. Reallocate the time you might have spent trying to eke out a few more points after repeated prep cycles and spend it doing something you enjoy and are good at.

Unless you intend to make your living taking tests some day, chances are that a lack of standardized testing skills will affect you less and less the further you get from high school. If tests are not your natural strength, spend some time addressing that weakness. But spend even more time maximizing your strengths.

You can also find all of my blog posts about testing and test prep here.