Timio Colistro, University Counsellor

The SAT has long been used by most American universities and colleges to gauge a Grade 12 student’s readiness for post-secondary education. Standardized tests have historically been a requirement when applying to most US schools. However, that changed last year during the pandemic. As it became challenging to safely administer the test, more than 1,775 US schools (or about three-quarters of four-year institutions) made submitting standardized test scores an optional part of their application.

As a result of these relaxed requirements, the number of students presenting a test score for admission dropped by 34%. The number of applications to top-tier schools ballooned. While some colleges that showed flexibility are back to requiring the SAT this year, many that went test-optional will continue this policy for at least the next two years.

This shift has left students in Grades 11 and 12 wondering whether or not they should write the test. Is it a useful strategy for students to skip writing the SAT? Or should a student take the SAT but withhold their score if they don’t do as well as they’d hoped?

To write or not to write

As University Counsellors, we recommend students still write the SAT. However, we recognize that each student's situation is unique with respect to access, cost, extracurricular commitments and test anxiety. This recommendation is a general one for students who can find a nearby test centre and who have the time and wherewithal to prepare adequately. We encourage all students to connect with an academic advisor to discuss their individual situation.

Most US schools take a holistic approach to admissions, meaning they evaluate prospective students on more than just academics. But if that’s the case, why do we suggest writing the SAT?

The SAT is useful to distinguish between eligibility and competitiveness. Students without SAT scores are now eligible to apply to a wider range of schools. Whether that same student is academically competitive is a trickier question to answer.

Think about your university application as a process of building a case for yourself. You want to present robust evidence in many forms and from different sources to support the claim that you are a good fit for that institution. In the absence of a key piece of evidence, it becomes more difficult for admissions to discern whether a student may be qualified.

Admissions officers often looked to SAT scores as corroborating evidence that helps form a strong picture of an applicant's readiness alongside a student’s GPA. Without that data point, admissions officers are somewhat more in the dark. In some cases they have enough evidence without the SAT to confidently accept or reject a student. In other cases, especially where essays or letters offer little to distinguish the applicant, this missing piece is hard to ignore when placed alongside similar students who present test scores.

What if my SAT score isn’t strong?

Students often ask whether they should send in an inadequate score as part of their application. Wouldn't this be decisive evidence that they don't belong? And if so, why send those scores?

We still recommend taking the SAT so you have that score in your back pocket. You do not necessarily need to submit the score as part of your application. Remember: “test optional” means that submitting your score is the optional piece. There’s little risk in taking the test and then determining whether you want to submit your results with an application.

There can also be merit in sending a score that might not be "strong." Even an average score gives an admissions officer that reassurance that an applicant is indeed college-ready. Whether the same officer would infer that from grades alone is uncertain.

Deciding whether to submit or not must be based on the individual score and where a student is applying, and is not reducible to a general piece of advice. Taking the SAT gives every student the option.

We understand that the process of studying for and taking the SAT can be a long and stressful one. Students are asked to find time to prepare for a five-hour exam amidst the usual demands of student life. But US schools aim to evaluate the whole student; decisions aren’t made solely based on GPAs and test scores.

Every student should speak with their academic advisor about the schools and programs they’re considering and discuss the merits of writing the SAT. Each student’s situation is unique and, when considering that the US admissions process remains a holistic one, we want each student to make the choice that is best for them.