On February 3rd, Expert Admissions co-hosted a webinar covering trends in applications and changes to standardized testing, as well as tips for being strategic in your college applications. Here are some highlights from the conversation.
The national data shows that, overall, college applications and enrollment are down this year. But this doesn’t give the whole picture. Depending on where you’re applying, applications may have gone up – significantly. Highly selective colleges have received record numbers of applications. For instance, in overall applications, Colgate is up 102% and NYU received more than 100,000 applications this year. With such an influx of applications, Stanford and the Ivy League schools have even delayed their notification dates in order to review them all.
These trends are no doubt due, in part, to new test-optional policies. Though many schools are not currently requiring standardized test scores, students should still test if they can. For some students, it may be a strategic choice not to test or not to submit scores, but strong test scores will still be an asset to your applications.
SATs and ACTs
The big news in the testing world is that the College Board has officially announced the end of both SAT Subject Tests and the optional SAT essay. Some students might be concerned that this is a missed opportunity to demonstrate advanced knowledge in a particular subject, but the colleges are really looking at your transcripts for that. The Subject Tests were never weighed very heavily in admissions decisions, and their discontinuation simply reflects that fact.
Very little has changed in the world of the ACT exam. The plan for section retesting has been put on hold and ACT continues to push superscoring (a revised score report is on the way), even though a minority of colleges currently superscore the ACT. Superscoring is the practice of taking the best scores on different test sections across different test dates to get a better overall score. Even if a college does superscore, we recommend that students wait to test until they’re best prepared.
Start planning for your SAT or ACT tests early, but don’t take the tests too early! Sophomore year is the time to try out some practice tests, see how close you are to your goals, and figure out whether the ACT or SAT is the right test for you. With good test preparation, including taking full length practice tests, you should know when you’re ready. And being ready to test can sometimes involve seeking accommodations for different circumstances such as learning disabilities or physical disabilities. Such conditions should be documented, and students should apply for accommodations through their high school as early as possible.
AP Tests and Course Selection
Last year AP tests went online, but the focus has shifted this year to offering maximally safe in-person tests. This includes offering additional dates to take the test if your school has closed as well as a backup online option. Ultimately, it is your high school’s AP coordinator who will make the decision about whether your school will offer the test in person or online.
If your school doesn’t offer AP courses, colleges will not expect you to take the AP exam, though you may want to take a particular AP exam if you think you can score well on it. Many colleges still offer course credit for high scores on AP exams, and you might be able to test out of a few required courses.
The reason to take AP classes is that, when offered, they’re usually the most rigorous classes available at a high school. Colleges ideally like to see students challenging themselves with the most rigorous classes available at their school (whether courses are labeled “AP” or not)…and doing well in them. Not everyone can take the most rigorous courses across subject areas, however. Ultimately, you’ll have to make curriculum choices taking into account your strengths, weaknesses, and goals. Consider whether you can do well in a harder course while still performing well in their other classes and juggling extracurricular activities.
Part of the application process is deciding when to apply. In addition to the regular admissions deadlines, there are several early application plans you can pursue, and it’s important to know the difference:
- Early Decision (ED) is binding. When you apply to a school ED, you commit in writing to attending that school if admitted, so you can’t apply to more than one school ED.
- Early Action (EA) is not binding. It’s simply an application plan in which you apply earlier and receive a decision earlier. If you’re admitted, the college agrees to hold your spot until May 1st, and you can see how the rest of your applications work out before you decide where to go. In theory, you can apply to as many schools as you like in Early Action.
- Restrictive Early Action is a special case used by a handful of schools like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford (and Princeton in a non-pandemic year). This plan is not binding, but it does restrict where else you can apply. If you choose to apply to a school with Restrictive Early Action, you cannot apply to another college ED, and you can only apply EA to public universities.
Strategically, it almost always makes sense to apply Early Decision or Early Action to a smart reach school. Your own college list should include roughly 8-10 schools in a range from safer options to reach schools. You’ll want to think both about where you fall academically and what kind of school will best support your interests and values.