Test-Optional Might Be The New Normal. Should You Still Sign Up?

Test centers are closing. Testing dates are backed up. Students are traveling across state lines to take the SAT. Most colleges aren’t even requiring applicants to submit scores. So are the SAT’s worth the effort this year?

1 million students missed the opportunity to take the SAT last spring when test centers closed for COVID-19. Now, sites are overbooked—if open at all. Almost half of testing sites ended up closing for the August 29 SAT, and of the 54% still open, many were below capacity. Students scrambling to take the test are traveling for hours to reach centers that are open and have space.

Colleges, to accommodate all the closures, are making tests optional. However, with the exception of a handful of schools, they are not going test blind. This is an essential distinction. Test optional means you can submit test scores if you have them, but not submitting an SAT will not be counted against you. Test blind means you cannot submit SAT scores, and if you do they will be ignored.

Why You Should Still Take the SAT

So most schools are not requiring test scores, but will look at them if you send them. This is key. If you take the SAT and get an outstanding score, it will still count in your favor. Because of the optional status, an outstanding score is even more impressive. It not only means you did well, but also that you put in the effort to find an open test center and actually take the test, even though you didn’t have to. Those are the kinds of students colleges are looking for.

Besides, even if colleges are SAT-optional, many scholarships still require the test. Not having taken the SAT could become a limitation if you want to apply for money before or during university. Even if it takes extra time, effort, and finances to take the test, that investment would pale in comparison to the thousands of dollars scholarships award.

But the SAT isn’t all about admissions and scholarships. Sure, it can be powerful on your resume and it opens doors. But that’s not the point. The reasons colleges even look at SAT scores is to assess readiness. So taking the SAT—and doing well on the SAT—not only means colleges will be more impressed by your application, but also that you’ll be more ready to attend college.

People often complain that the test is biased, that it’s just a matter of putting in the time and studying when really it should measure intelligence. This argument misses the point: colleges aren’t looking for intelligence, they’re looking for students who will put in the work. And studying for the SAT can be an indicator for putting in the work. It can separate the students who study from those who just wing it—or, this year, who don’t take the test at all.

Why You Should Study for the SAT First

The observation that the SAT is biased toward people who have studied is legitimate—it just doesn’t make sense as a complaint. Instead, that’s how the test was designed. You can—and should—use that knowledge to your advantage.

If you know the SAT favors people who have studied, make sure you’ve studied. However, not all SAT-studying is created equal. Cranking out practice test after practice test may not teach you anything at all. You have to study smart, especially for the SAT. Remember, this test is meant to show college-readiness. That means to get the highest score, you’ll have to study like a college student. And college students have to study smart.

How to Study Smart

1. Find a tutor

For most studying, one of the smartest things you can do is ask for help. A tutor can not only give you materials to study, but also provide extra guidance, insights, and tips. They have spent years working with this test, and will share that knowledge with you. Instead of sitting down with a book and the internet, you’re sitting down with someone who can leverage all that understanding to make your SAT scores to the highest they can be.

It is also their job to personalize their teaching to your strengths and weaknesses. Because tutoring happens in small groups or one-on-one, they’ll be able to tailor the studying process to you and your potential. This means you’ll maximize your study time, increasing your score the most possible for the hours you spend.

2. Find a friend

Studying with someone is almost always smarter than studying alone. Although a friend won’t have all the knowledge a tutor does, they can be an awesome source of encouragement and support. It also makes studying more fun to have someone else you can practice with. Instead of feeling locked alone in your room, you can study together and even compete or help each other improve your scores.

To get the most out of studying with a friend, you can even organize tutoring together. Sharing a tutor means you’ll both be working on the same stuff at the same time. This means you can help each other, reviewing materials and correcting problems together. When either of you miss a question, the other will learn even more by re-teaching that material. This process optimizes learning for both of you and is more meaningful when that material is shared. To get the most
out of this phenomenon, you can even make a tutoring group, all learning and working together.

3. Put in the time

This should be obvious, but is essential. The more time you put into studying, the more you will learn. The more you learn, the better your final scores will be. Knowing that the SAT favors those who have studied, do not slack on studying for the SAT.

4. Learn from your mistakes

As much as you should put in the time, not all study time is equal. Hours and hours of practice tests can get you nowhere, while a single hour of strategizing can improve your score remarkably. This kind of strategizing is hard to do without a tutor, but whether working with someone or alone, the key is always to learn from your mistakes.

Instead of turning away from a problem you missed, either frustrated or assuming it was a “careless error,” take the time to understand what went wrong. Walk back through your thinking process. Go through every answer option. Try to figure out where you made a mistake—and, most importantly, figure out a way not to make that same mistake again.

This is one of those places where tutors can be a real advantage. Figuring out mistakes alone is a challenge at best. Often, we’re so wrapped up in our own thinking that we miss our blind spots. That’s what a tutor is for. They can point out what went wrong, explain what could’ve been better, and come up with actionable strategies to avoid that kind of mistake in the future.

Mistake-based studying will boost your score and optimize your study time. It will also teach the growth mindset, something colleges—plus employers like Apple and Nike—are looking for.

What It’s All About

All this effort will raise your score, which can make your application stand out in the crowded applicant pool. More than that, though, it will get you ready for the next big thing: university. Even if you don’t get a 1600, the process of studying smart will serve you throughout college and into the rest of your life. Asking for help, collaborating with friends, putting in the time, and developing a growth mindset are skills that reach far beyond the SAT. As much as the test may
be optional this year, that learning is more essential than ever.

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