More Colleges Drop ACT/SAT; Activities, Essays More Important than Ever

I recently posted on the increased importance of activities and on application essays for the class of 2021, and in the two weeks since I wrote that, most of the Ivy League has now formally dropped the test score requirements. Only Harvard and Princeton have not made a formal announcement, and as the quote below shows, they may be moving that way–with Harvard hedging, bet that Princeton will not want to stand alone as the only Ivy holding students responsible for a test they cannot or perhaps should not, for health reasons,* be taking this year. Here’s the live quote:

“As of Friday afternoon, [June 12] Harvard and Princeton universities were the lone Ivy holdouts. But even Harvard appeared to be inching toward flexibility. “If students are prevented from taking tests in any form due to COVID-19, we will still review their applications as we have in the past in other exceptional circumstances,” Harvard said in a statement. Stanford University’s dean of admission and financial aid, Richard Shaw, said his school’s approach will be similar to Harvard’s.”

Optional Testing Raises the Bar on Essays and Activities

Please see my earlier post on how this reduction in testing information will boost the importance of your activities. Just as much, this will boost the importance of your essays. Essays in part shape the presentation of your activities, but your essays also offer a look that is wider than what college activities or data can offer–you show your passions and motivations as well as your accomplishments in essays.

And with the only data being GPA for most of the Ivies this year, your written material and activities have become the only way to separate yourself from the crowd.

This is a huge change, one that is hard to overstate, in a game of margins. Faced with identical GPA’s, transcripts and range of classes that are relatively interchangeable, and a slate of winning essays, marginal differences in test scores do make a difference. Or did make a difference.

Now you need to focus even more on developing those supposedly “softer” measurements for you holistic application evaluations. You also need to ramp up ideas for summer activities now, to replace anything you might have dropped, or that may have been canceled, due to COVID. In a post earlier this summer, I offered some suggestions for community service-based activities that you could get off the ground literally in a couple of days, so please see my recent discussion on getting activities going–boosting your activities and essays for 2020-2021.

Launch a New Activity Now and Review Existing Essay Prompts

No need to panic–just start doing some constructive work, that helps others, and think about how you could write about your activities. Possibly this feels a bit phony or hypocritical to you–but is this not the point of your education both now and in college? To learn, then to apply your new skills to solve problems, helping others and the world around you? If you go out and start a new activity that helps others, you are showing what kind of person you would be in a campus community–which is a fundemental part of a holistic evaluation of a college application. This is really an exercise in “real life” flexibility, innovation and leadership. Have at it.

Also take a look at my recent posts on the major essay prompts that are up–

Starting Common Application Essays in 2020-2021

Starting your Texas application essays in 2020-2021 (and doubling up main essays to save time and work).

I will be posting on other major essay prompts as they continue to roll out between now and August. Come back soon.

For Essay Development and Editing, Contact Me

I still have some space available for new essay development and editing clients this summer. Contact me to get started.

Applying to College in 2020-2021–It’s All About the Extracurriculars

Many top colleges are dropping the SAT and ACT this year. Before we discuss the details, take a look at how applications were traditionally evaluated, please see my classic post: The Secret to College Admissions. Then read on, below.

Changes for 2020-2021–The SAT and ACT in Retreat

There are big changes everywhere in higher education. Some of these, like whether classes will be online or in-person, or a hybrid, will be relatively minor concerns by the time this year’s rising seniors go to college in the fall of 2021, but the changes coming for college applications this year are definitely worth looking at, now. Particularly where the SAT and ACT tests are being dropped or made optional.

How to Apply  to the University of California Without Using Test Scores
Sather Gate, University of California Berkeley

Foremost among them is a sea change in the importance of standardized test scores. Yes our friends at the SAT and ACT or getting the boot at many college application portals–like the University of California system. This is huge.

I realize there is a debate about grade inflation, and particularly with the spring semester of 2020 being something of a cypher in terms of interpreting grades, many have concerns about this. Me: not so much. Other than dropping the SAT/ACT does put pressure on you applicants to step it up in the areas outside of your required reading and testing. More on that in a moment.

Major Colleges Dropping or Suspending ACT/SAT Testing Requirements

First, a quick look at some of the names that are suspending or dropping the SAT and ACT. Suspending the tests: Williams, Amherst, Haverford, Davidson, Pomona, Rhodes, Scripps and Vassar colleges. Some colleges are exploring permanent changes. For example, Davidson, Rhodes and Williams (which often ranks as No. 1 in national liberal arts colleges on U.S. News & World Report rankings), are launching three-year pilot programs to test whether the tests are necessary at all. Vassar is planning to review their testing policy next year to see whether to extend the suspension of testing. So is Trinity University, a well-known liberal arts college in Texas. Tufts University plans a three-year pilot program (meaning a three-year suspension) of testing.

On top of that, 45 schools have temporarily waived testing requirements for high school seniors applying to begin college this summer or fall.

The Ivy League Sticks to the Tests–For the Most Part

In contrast, Ivy League and many other elite schools are not making any significant changes at the moment. Harvard claims that it’s not particularly useful to take the test multiple times (I disagree: in a game of margins, more than a few of my clients have benefited a lot by taking the test multiple times: so, whatever, Harvard). Princeton just adds that they know many students will not have the opportunity to repeat the test.

Harvard seems to be prety much just plowing ahead, while Princeton, at least, means to suggest that they are sensitive to differences in opportunity and will look all the more closely at the full picture. This is possible to do in the aggregate by data on the school you come from–public inner city with limited resources vs. well-endowed suburban high school is relatively simple to factor in, and they have the data to do that. Of course, that does not mean that any college can easily account for individual differences in access and opportunity. Like that kid living in a trailer park with spotty internet and a ten-year-old notebook to use, located on the edge of an upper-middle-class suburb.

The University of California Suspends Testing

There will be a lot of huffing and puffing about the schools that are suspending or dropping the test requirement–a quick survey of comments on the UC announcement has more than a few end-of-the-UC prophecies. But I am not really worried about that scenario. Likely some who would not have gotten in with the SAT/ACT in place will get a seat under the no-test policy, but the world won’t end, nor will the UC become a low-achievers’ paradise. Back in the day, UC gave a seat to any student in the top 10% in their high school class, which how is reduced by a double 9%–top 9% of students in California on a ranked index of all students, and top 9% at your school. That policy has not changed and clearly will shape who gets admissions.

UC is also discussing coming up with its own test vehicle to replace the ACT and SAT, which makes sense financially as well. Frankly, it’s about time some of the bigger universities started reducing the size and influence of the testing industrial complex, and the SAT and ACT have problems that have been the subject of discussion for years, like how they reward those with the dollars for extensive test prep, not to mention being able to afford homes in the better school district population areas–for those of you familiar with the debate here in the U.S., it’s also been a topic in the UK, as here: SAT favors middle class. I add here that the Telegraph, which I link here, is considered a right-of-center paper. Not the kind of paper to find a lot of liberal bias for equal opportunity.

Your Takeway: Get Going On Extracurriculars

Your takeaway is pretty clear, if you are a rising sophomore, junior or senior who will apply to college in the next three cycles: in addition to nailing grades, it’s time to put even more focus on extracurricular activites. And I always suggest picking extracurriculars that have intrinisic meaning, to you.

But How?

But now we have the Covid paradox: most extracurriculars are closed down, from internships to camps and a range of group activities. And where they are open, you have to weigh the risk of doing an extracurricular against the risk of getting sick and/or infecting those you care about. And taking that risk mainly or solely to boost your college applications.

Rather than taking extra health risks, I suggest taking another tack: find a way to pursue and develop your interests independently. This means more time online, of course, but rather than filling in blanks and uploading assignments into Google classroom, you have to choose your own path.

Suggestion one: Find a way to pursue you interests through a website. An easy way to do this is to go to a service like, where you found the post you are reading now, and build a website. You can figure it out and get a site up in an afternoon, includig picking a free theme.

Suggestion two: Try to find a way to help others, whether through information or through networking. Possibly use a website you set up.

I will be more specific with ideas in my next post, but with up to 20% unemployment in many areas, food security has become a big issue. Brainstorm for a bit and you might find a way to use a website to link up those needing food with excess food, particularly if you happen to live in one of those suburbs where there is an excess of fruit trees that tend to go unpicked.

Suggestion three–find some other way to organize people to do good, using a website and social media, or to create a community with shared interests.

I will let you ponder those ideas and brainstorm for yourself. I will post on extracurriculars again soon, with more specific suggestions. And of course I will be starting my annual analysis of application data soon, as well. So come back early and often, or click to follow this website, so you get regular updates.