The SAT is Coming Back at Some Colleges. It’s Stressing Everyone Out.

Erin Talbert
Kai Talbert, 17, studies for the ACT.

A California mother drove 80 miles this month to find an SAT testing center with an open seat where her high school junior could take the exam. During college tours this spring, a teen recalled hearing some would-be applicants groan when admissions staffers announced they could not guarantee test-optional policies would continue.

And across the country, college counselors are fielding questions from teenagers alarmed, encouraged or simply confused by what seems like the return of the standardized test in admissions – maybe? Sort of? In some places, but not in others?

“You could be expecting and preparing for a certain way to apply to a college and present yourself – but then they change it mid-application process,” said Kai Talbert, a 17-year-old high school junior in Pennsylvania. “That’s really confusing. It can set back a lot of people.”

Colleges nationwide have been updating their coronavirus-era policies on standardized testing, which many dropped when the pandemic shut down in-person testing centers. Some of the most selective schools are declaring they will require tests again – including, across the last two months, Dartmouth College and Yale and Brown universities. Others, such as the University of Chicago and Columbia University, won’t. And still others have not yet picked a permanent policy: Princeton, Stanford, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania have said they will remain test-optional for another year or two, and Harvard University plans to keep its test-optional policy at least through the 2025-26 application cycle.

Public universities have veered in different directions, too: The University of Tennessee system requires tests. The University of Michigan will be test-optional. The University of California system is test-blind, meaning schools refuse to consider SAT or ACT scores for admissions.

The patchwork of policies is wreaking havoc on applicants, parents and college admissions consultants nationwide, who are being forced to recalculate where and how they are willing to apply – or what to tell anxious teenagers about whether to test, retest or skip testing entirely – as decisions keep rolling out in real time.

Laurie Kopp Weingarten, founder of One-Stop College Counseling in New Jersey, said she has a new response whenever a student gives her a list of their school targets. She starts by going down the list, school by school, to review each institution’s testing rules and whether those seem likely to change.

Taking a breath, Weingarten rattled off a summary of the different testing requirements in place at every Ivy League school. It took her three minutes.

“Even just saying it, it sounds like insanity to me, and then we’re expecting kids to understand this?” Weingarten said. “Colleges should really analyze the data, come up with a decision and stop changing their mind.”

The shifting testing expectations are among many changes roiling college admissions this year. Colleges are still grappling with the fallout from the landmark Supreme Court ruling that ended the use of race-based affirmative action in admissions. Many are undertaking an array of experiments in response to the decision in a bid to maintain diverse admitted classes – ending legacy preferences in some cases, adding essay prompts on adversity or identity in others, or increasing outreach in low-income areas.

And the disastrous rollout of a federal financial aid form that was supposed to simplify the notoriously difficult process has left students, parents and schools scrambling.

This is the most hectic and distressing admissions cycle in recent memory, said Jennifer Nuechterlein, a college and career counselor at a New Jersey high school. She laid special blame on schools that reinstated testing mandates in the past two months, some of which affect the high school juniors who will begin applying in the fall. This class of teens will have to take the SAT or ACT, should they decide to do so, within the next six months.

“Students can’t just test overnight,” Nuechterlein said. “There are students who want to prep, there are students who are not math- or English-ready. … Students are going to be unprepared.”

For the most ambitious, high-achieving students, the tests are another stressful hurdle to clear as they apply to the most selective colleges. And for many other students, the test scores – even if not required for admission – are mandatory if they want to qualify for some financial aid programs or, on some campuses, certain degree programs.

Critics of standardized tests have argued that they mirror, or exacerbate, societal inequities, in part because students from unstable homes or with limited resources cannot afford SAT or ACT tutors or testing preparation classes, or may not know of free resources such as Khan Academy. Even before the pandemic, some schools had moved to make the scores optional to avoid creating another barrier for students.

Then the pandemic hit, spurring a crisis response when students literally could not access spaces in which to take standardized tests, said Dominique J. Baker, a University of Delaware associate professor of education and public policy who studies admissions policies.

“There were a number of institutions that never would have chosen to have gone test-optional except the pandemic made them,” she said. “Those institutions, by and large, are going back to requiring test scores.”

MIT and Georgetown University are among schools that quickly chose to reinstate the requirements, with MIT announcing the change in 2022. Many others have spent the years since the virus arrived studying what effect going test-optional had on their admitted classes.

At Brown, Yale and Dartmouth, officials said they had found something surprising: Considering test scores would help them identify more promising applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, not fewer. After looking at their own data, leaders at the three Ivy League schools say they concluded that SAT and ACT scores are highly predictive of students’ academic performance in college, more so than high school grades. They also found that some less-advantaged students withheld their scores when sharing them would have boosted their chances.

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.

The University of Texas at Austin is also choosing to require testing again, the school announced earlier this month. Jay Hartzell, the school’s president, said he and others worried the cost and preparation associated with the tests could keep students from applying. But about 90 percent of UT Austin applicants in the latest round took the SAT even though it was optional, Hartzell said. And the school found that students who declined to submit scores were less successful once enrolled.

John Friedman, a professor of economics and international and public affairs at Brown, said he wouldn’t be surprised if more of those highly selective schools reinstate a testing requirement. He was one of the authors of the study from Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit at Harvard University, on standardized test scores and student performance at a dozen “Ivy-plus” universities.

“It’s not just about the test scores being a good predictor,” he said. “We show in the paper that students who attend a school, having been admitted without a test score, perform at the bottom of the distribution.” He said schools should look at their own data to determine their policy.

Nonetheless, most schools nationwide will probably remain test-optional, predicted Angel Pérez, the chief executive of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. For many institutions, he said, the policy has been a huge success, bumping up the number of applicants and diversifying admitted classes.

He added that most American high-schoolers are applying to schools that admit nearly all applicants, to public schools or to colleges close to home, he said: “So the majority of students aren’t going to be impacted.”

Morehouse College is among those maintaining a test-optional policy, which the historically Black college adopted in 2020. Since going test-optional, Morehouse has seen an increased number of applicants and an increased acceptance rate from admitted students, said Michael Gumm, Morehouse’s director of admissions and recruitment.

The majority of Morehouse applicants choose not to submit scores, Gumm said, and more students are completing their applications than in the past. He said Morehouse is looking for leaders, so essays and letters of recommendation carry a lot of weight.

Gumm said he often preaches to students: “Your test scores do not make you who you are.”

But for some students, the tests remain a priority. Alina Bunch, a 16-year-old high school junior in Texas, said that even when she saw schools dropping test requirements, she never altered her plan to take the ACT. The exam, she says, is a way to demonstrate determination and academic rigor.

She thinks it’s generally a good thing that schools are bringing back testing requirements, because they can function as a mechanism of standardization in a sometimes subjective admissions process. She does fear the effects of reinstating test requirements for students who cannot afford tutoring.

But for herself – after taking a summer course to prepare for the ACT and scoring high on the exam – she has no real worries. “It was never a question for me, of whether I should do it or not,” Alina said.

Many students pursued similar strategies, continuing to take standardized tests throughout the test-optional trend. After a dramatic drop in 2020 spurred by the sudden closure of test sites, the number of students taking the SAT nationally has risen every year since, per the College Board, and reached 1.9 million for the class of 2023. That’s about 300,000 short of the last pre-pandemic total, when 2.2 million members of the class of 2019 sat for the exam – the largest-ever group to do so.

Joan Koven, who heads college consulting company Academic Access in Pennsylvania, said she never expected standardized testing to suffer a real drop in popularity.

“The ACTs and the SATs are Burger King and McDonald’s,” she said. “They’re not going away.”

But in some places, counselors wish they would. Priscilla Grijalva, a high school counselor in California’s San Jacinto Unified School District, said the elimination of test requirements in the UC system and California State University campuses was a godsend for the nearly 300 students she works with every year, a mix of White, Black and Latino teens, most of whom are socioeconomically disadvantaged.

In the past, many of her students applied only to community colleges. But now she has seen a sharp rise in those willing to aim for state universities.

“It has changed our students’ mindsets,” Grijalva said. “Now it’s like, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ They’re more confident in their leadership and their grades.”

But the flurry of recent announcements from schools altering their testing rules has proved alarming, she said. Her students “do feel the pressure coming back,” she said. “They’re starting to talk.”

Claire Elkin, 16, overheard some of this nervous chatter when she was touring colleges this spring with her family – making visits to places including the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At every school, recalled Claire, who took the ACT and intends to submit her scores, admissions tour leaders said something like: “Yeah, we’re test-optional now, but we can’t guarantee anything for you.”

Every time, the crowds of hopefuls around Claire broke into murmurs that ranged from anguished to angry, she said. She remembered one family whose daughters seemed especially upset, spurring the mother to jump into emergency action trying to calm the girls as the admissions presentation continued.

“A lot of kids my age can’t set a path right now for what they should be prioritizing when they’re applying for schools,” Claire said. “So there is definitely more panic.”