“Wait, why—what do you mean you don’t accept the SAT?”
Whether with curiosity, confusion, joy, or frustration, this question is always asked with intense emotion.
For the past four years I've worked as an admissions counselor at a college that stopped accepting standardized test scores for admissions and financial aid. The sheer bewilderment I encountered from many high school students is justified. Standardized testing is intrinsic to the college application process, an unquestionable part of U.S. culture. While the majority of my prospective students and their parents agreed that these scores don’t accurately represent student potential, our society and its systems perpetuate the idea that they do. If you’re a teen hoping to go to college, you take the SATs, period.
So what is it like to review an application without scores? I’ve experienced the impact that standardized testing has on students, families, and educators, and I believe we need widespread reform of college admissions and the metrics through which we evaluate and incentivize meaningful learning in the U.S.
I was an admissions counselor at Hampshire College, a small liberal arts school in Massachusetts that in 2014 became the only competitive four-year college to completely end the use of the SAT and ACTs for admissions and financial aid.
Two years later, after two “test-blind” admissions cycles, we have greater insight into the impact this decision had on our applicants. Beyond the improvement of a variety of quantitative metrics like “yield” (the percentage of students who accept our offer of admission) that indicate we’re admitting students who are a better fit for our college, we saw a change in our office culture. Conversations with students now focus on authentically representing our program and de-emphasizing statistics, averages, or rankings. Counselors build deep and meaningful relationships with applicants over a period of months that allow us to truly understand them as people. Never once have I wished I had an SAT score while reading an application.
Taking numbers out of the equation
“But what do you even look at?” Our energies shifted to helping students understand what a holistic evaluation means and how they can best represent each facet of their history, skills, and ambitions. Naturally, this necessitates a new norm in student interaction. There’s no simple answer to, “What do I need to do to get in?” But there shouldn’t be. The college search process in the U.S. has increasingly become transactional, with students being pressured into applying to more and more schools. In doing so, they have less time to invest in researching each school, and less time to reflect on what they actually want to get out of their four-year investment.
People are complex; it should take time to get to know a student. Students pour weeks, months, and for some students two or three years into preparing to apply to college. Colleges should reciprocate with a thorough, holistic evaluation. It’s fairer for each student if measuring their “fit” involves a multifaceted look into them as an individual.
What do we look at if we’re not looking for the top standardized test scores and GPA? A holistic review means using multiple, diverse pieces of an application to try to triangulate and corroborate the student’s history and potential. We assess each student’s individual academic and community fit with our college. We eschew the GPA in isolation and instead place emphasis on the transcript within the context of the high school itself. What courses were offered, and which did they choose to take? What academic risks did they take, and how did they react to failure? What support or lack thereof did the student have at home? What responsibilities did they have outside of school?
Drawing on letters of recommendation, essays, community involvement, and more, we look for evidence of self-awareness, empathy, curiosity, risk-taking, and a desire to collaborate and innovate. We try to understand each student’s academic performance within the context of their environment.
Critics of our decision to disregard SATs and ACTs are quick to note that our approach is not scalable to large universities with huge numbers of applicants. But what are we trying to scale here? We invested resources in better understanding our students and then were able to build an admissions process that enabled us to better identify, recruit, and support students equipped to thrive at our college. Shouldn’t every institution be looking inward to study their unique predictors of student success?
We already have the data that illustrate both the inability of the SAT to predict academic success in college, and the existence of bias across gender, race, and class within the SAT. We’ve also already seen dozens of new colleges and universities make the decision to go SAT-optional just in the past year. But going test-optional isn’t enough. I believe many more colleges should restructure admissions practices to incentivize students to focus their time in high school on their personal development, not on standardized test prep.
Many U.S. college and universities have already reached single digit acceptance rates; is the goal to simply keep going until they reach just 1%?
If scalability in admissions assumes sacrificing meaningful relationships with students and instead distilling the process to an algorithmic sorting based on GPAs and SAT scores, then I oppose scalability. I believe students will benefit if we restructure admissions policies to emphasize the percentage increase not in overall applications, but rather in applications that are the best fit for the student and the college.
Questions families need to ask
I ask high school students and their families to start this fall by changing the conversation. Whether traveling to visit a college on the road, meeting a representative at your high school, or navigating the room at a college fair, think carefully about the questions you ask and the answers you receive. Ask college reps to engage you as a learner, not a customer. Don’t just blindly apply. Engage with the institutions you’re most interested in, and ask them hard, substantive questions, like:
- What qualities does your college/university look for when evaluating applicants? How do you measure and compare these qualities in candidates from different backgrounds?
- How do students here receive feedback from their professors about their areas of strength and weakness?
- How are your students encouraged to take academic risks and explore outside of their comfort zones?
- Do your students have opportunities to experience failure? Can you provide an example?
- When and how do your students collaborate in academic settings? Can you share a couple of examples that are unique to your campus?
Meaningful change will require a culture shift, and we need stakeholder buy-in to challenge the obsession with rankings and SAT and ACT scores in college admissions.
Kristina Moss Gunnarsdóttir recently transitioned from her job as associate director of admissions at Hampshire College after receiving a Fulbright award from the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board. A recipient of the Fulbright-García Robles Award, she has begun her Fulbright service year teaching English in Mexico City and organizing workshops for female artisans there focusing on entrepreneurship, financial literacy, and educational access. She earned a bachelor's degree from Hampshire.