by Kat J, Stanford University
The SAT is the polarizing, much maligned, yet ever-present topic discussed among students, families and educators during the college application process. First held in 1926, the SAT is the most commonly used standardized test for college admissions across the United States and in various other regions around the globe. Even certain UK universities will accept a high SAT score in lieu of an A-level. While it has undergone significant overhauls throughout its history, the SAT still provides students and their prospective universities a basic assessment of the test-takers’ math and combined reading/language skills. For the vast majority of students aiming for colleges in the US – and especially for those applying during or after 2025 – the SAT remains a necessary rite of passage. When schools say “test optional,” they often mean “do it well.”
As with many forms of standardized testing, the SAT has come under fire in recent years. On the one hand, the concept of a consistent, equalizing test suggests a fair playing field for students regardless of socioeconomic status, personal background, and day-to-day opportunities — a typical US public school might not offer Latin as an elective, for example, but on an SAT a studious test-taker can still shine.
On the flip-side, though, are numerous studies that have shown the economic disparities among students and how that has been reflected in their educational opportunities and, ultimately, their scores on the test. According to a 2023 study by Opportunity Insights and Chetty, Deming, Friedman, over 33% of students who score 1300 or higher on the SAT have parents in the top 0.1 income percentile. Other aspects such as a student’s region, race and ethnicity, and language use at home all fuel the argument that the standardized test is not so great an equalizer.
In the past three years since the COVID pandemic hit, college admissions as well as prospective applicants and their families faced a unique cross-roads. As many testing and preparation facilities shut down amidst the lockdown, the SAT was simply not accessible to large swaths of the population, both inside the US and abroad. As public schools began closing in early 2020, College Board decided to suspend the SAT through March, May, and June. While the number of test-takers declined significantly, those students who did sit for the test during the pandemic years saw declining score averages from 2021 to 2022.
As a response, and to accommodate students testing and graduating during these difficult years, numerous universities and colleges made the SAT and ACT optional components of their applications. However, many others — such as Georgetown University, University of Pennsylvania, Barnard College, and Cornell — did not. For students only looking to apply to SAT-optional schools (including University of California and California State schools, Brown University, California Institute of Technology, and Carnegie Mellon among others), avoiding the test entirely became a tantalizing and in some cases acceptable option. Among the schools that shifted to test optional, the majority plan to revisit this decision in 2025, though a few, such as Dartmouth, have already revised their guidelines.
At over 1.9 million, figures show SAT-takers are once again increasing to pre-pandemic numbers. Students, counselors and admission officers are simply not ready for a fully test-optional world, and for good reason.
According to many college admissions experts, as covered in EducationWeek, it is better to tough it out and take the test. The biggest reason is that, if your SAT score is higher than average, it is an asset to your application. Conversely, a low SAT score can simply be omitted in the application for SAT-optional schools. Even now, despite the post-pandemic proliferation of test optional policies, a solid SAT score can be proof to a student’s dream school of their academic preparedness. Additionally, if your student happens to add an SAT-required school to their application list at the last minute, it is better to have an SAT score ready to submit rather than scrambling to prepare and sit for a last minute (and thereby extremely stressful and high-stakes) exam. A decent SAT score can serve to cover one’s bases and as a means of diversifying a student’s college list. Students applying during or after 2025 should not assume any current test optional schools will remain so once they become seniors, and taking an SAT during senior year is not best practice.
Additionally, college admissions experts point out that some scholarships and merit-based grants still require an SAT or ACT score in their applications.
In March 2022, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced it would be reinstating the SAT and the ACT as a mandatory part of its application process. Far from simply being an ‘equalized’ method of testing students’ academic preparedness, school representatives asserted, MIT would be using SAT results to promote equity, showing extra favor towards students from lower income backgrounds with fewer resources who score exceptionally well. As other schools consider following suit, it seems increasingly likely standardized testing will make a large-scale comeback.
For most students, deciding to apply only to test-optional schools is unnecessarily limiting and subject to the annual whims of admission committees. While essays, recommendation letters, and alumni interviews have come to play a bigger role in the admissions process than in years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, students must accept that a high standardized test score continues to provide a crucial leg up in an increasingly competitive system. Studying properly, testing early, and having a solid score to show to any school remains the safest and soundest option. Don’t wait until the policies change: ace the digital SAT during sophomore or junior year, and then put it out of mind!
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