In what seems like ages ago, high school students used to be terrified of the ACT and SAT because they feared that mediocre results would ruin their college choices.
The pandemic certainly ameliorated that fear since the vast majority of schools temporarily adopted test-optional policies due to the unavailability of the tests. At most schools, this temporary measure has now become permanent.
For the 2024-2025 admission season, 80% of colleges—including just about every prestigious and brand name institution—no longer require the test.
But this major college admission reality is causing its own challenges. As far as the state universities and highly selective private schools were concerned, test scores were an easy way to separate promising applicants from those who were easily dispatched to the rejection pile. Now colleges must operate with Plan B.
Here are four things that students and their parents need to do to successfully navigate the new college admission reality:
1. Pay attention to the other admission factors.
Because of the standardized test void, other admission factors that used to be less important are now a bigger deal.
Grade point average and the strength of an applicant’s transcript have always been crucial and will continue to be so. There are many other factors that can play a bigger admission role, such as demonstrated interest, personal qualities, extracurriculars, essay, talents, first-generation status and recommendations.
Every school can weight these secondary factors in different ways or even ignore them. What matters is how schools on a student’s list will treat them.
Luckily, it’s easy to discover what admission factors matter and which don’t at individual institutions by visiting CollegeData.org. The website lists 19 admission factors that a college can categorize in these four ways:
- Very important
- Not Considered
As a practical matter, the demonstrated interest factor can be important when planning college trips. If a family can’t visit all the potential schools, they can visit the institutions where demonstrated interest is important.
For instance, Johns Hopkins University does not consider an applicant’s level of interest, but less than an hour away the U.S. Naval Academy considers it very important.
Beyond visiting a campus, a variety of other ways exist to show demonstrated interest. Teenagers can sign up for materials, talk to a rep at a college fair or send an email query. They can join a school’s online events and simply spend time on a college’s website. While this will smack of big brother, many schools can not only detect when a teenager has visited its website, but they also know where on the site he/she has visited and for how long.
The admission factors, by the way, are provided by the individual schools through a document called the Common Data Set.
2. Write an engaging essay.
With some schools putting more emphasis on the essay, it’s critical to get it right. Unfortunately, most students, in my opinion, do a poor job writing their essay.
Keep in mind that admission readers must plow through a mind-numbing pile of essays, and a good one will jump out. The son of a friend of mine got into Yale after writing about his love of pickles.
Students will stand out if they open with an attention-grabber first sentence. Here are some examples:
- I was born with old hands.
- If I could live anywhere, it would be in a tree house.
- When I woke up in my sleeping bag, I saw a black bear rummaging through my backpack.
Writing an engaging college essay that captures the student’s voice is not intuitive. They are absolutely nothing like an English class composition. Two websites that can steer students in the right direction are Collegeessayguy.com and Essayhell.com.
3. Ace the “Why us?” question.
Students need to convey why they are applying to selective institutions, beyond their hopes that they might luck out and get in.
It’s essential that students give an intelligent answer that indicates the applicant knows a lot more about the school than its location or ranking on U.S. News & World Report.
Families should look on websites like Niche and Unigo and in guidebooks from publishers like the Princeton Review and Fiske to dive deeper into what individual schools are like and what their students think about them.
4. Know when to turn in test scores.
While test results are rarely required anymore, plenty of teenagers are submitting them. And that’s because good scores can still help applicants get into their dream schools. In addition, some schools will require scores to get institutional merit scholarships or at least some of them.
It’s important for families to know if a nonsubmittal would forfeit chances for institutional merit money. Students also need to be strategic about submitting scores. If their scores are in the top 25% of students who submit them, go ahead and send them, and if their scores are in the bottom quartile, don’t release them.
It’s murkier for the middle 50%, and I would suggest that students contact the relevant admission office and ask for advice on this. Students will not be penalized for asking; in fact, they don’t even need to share their name.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a nationally recognized college expert, offers an online course – Savvy College Planning – exclusively for financial advisors. Click here to get Lynn’s guide, Finding the Most Generous Colleges.