3 years ago
Admissions Advice

If 99% of colleges are test optional, why are ACT/SAT scores of admits going up?

Your gut says that if colleges are trying to make admissions a level playing field and are not requiring standardized tests, shouldn't ACT/SAT test scores are going down instead of going up?

Today Harvard announced that next year will be test-optional as well so this will be the 3rd year test scores are not required by the hardest school to get into in America, and perhaps the world. But why does it seem that this still doesn't help many students vying to get into Harvard or an Ivy?

I feel it's important to share and discuss this with you Class of 2026 applicants because perhaps it will better inform your decision to apply to certain schools or modify your list.

Here are the big takeaways in no particular order.

1. Standardized Tests actually matter so there is a fallacy to the marketing messages of colleges telling you that your application will be reviewed holistically. Colleges want as many people as possible to apply because it makes their admit stats look better. If there admit rates go down, that will directly affect their rankings positively. So colleges like Colgate that received twice as many applications in 2021 vs 2020 can accept the same amount of students and their admit rate looks 50% better. And if they get more applicants, they make more application fee revenue and can shape their incoming class with a broader pool of applicants. This helps them get to their institutional goals. Although some applicants do not submit test scores, in 99 out of 100 cases, the admit stats reflect that more students were admitted who submitted versus those that didn't submit.

2. Mathematically if say a 1/4 to 1/2 or the incoming admit class didn't submit a test score, the colleges still record the test scores of those that submitted. What this means is that with test-optional, ACT/SAT scores are artificially higher during current cycles versus previous cycles because only those with high test scores are counted in the admissions stats. So let's use Harvard as an example. If 2 years ago they admitted 2000 with a 50% middle range of 1460/1580 SAT and 33/35 ACT and then last year, only 1500 of the admits had submitted test scores, the stats will be up slightly because they are only counting the high scores of the 1500, not the 500 that didn't submit. So when the 2021-22 Common Set Set comes out, it very well might look like 1480-1580 for the SAT and 34/35 for the ACT for the middle 50% of the 1500 that submitted. (BTW. I checked today 7/31/22, 8 months later and the 2021-22 Harvard Common data set now shows a middle of 1480-1580 so I was 100% spot on with this guesstimate. I was a bit off with the ACT which ended up 33-36 but still up on the 75% band)

3. There are only a limited amount of seats at Ivys and other Elite colleges. In the last cycle, 405,000 HS students applied for the 15,000 seats at Ivy colleges. You can probably guess that there were less than 10,000 because of legacy, recruited athletes, VIP, development candidates, and kids of employees ate up a 1/3 of them. Similarly, there were probably only 10000 seats at schools like Stanford, UChicago, JHU, Rice, Vanderbilt, Duke, Georgetown, WashU. What this means is that it's like the Hype Sneaker market, there are only a limited amount of kicks that drop every month and unless you are part of the inner circle, you will never get a Travis Scott Jordan for retail. Since attending an Ivy/Elite is more hyped up now than any time in history, there is super overcrowding demand for these few seats. Many Ivys have the same amount of available seats that they did 30, 40, and 50 years ago. They are not building more dorms or expanding the undergraduate programs to accommodate the demand. This perpetuates the hype and clout for top schools regardless of whether they are actually better learning environments to get a great education. What this greater demand means is that there are more people applying with perfect GPAs, perfect or near-perfect ACT and SAT scores. And soon you will see more applicants with TIER 1 ECS and impeccable essays.

4. Just like the ripple effect had devasting consequences for the crowd pushing toward the Astroworld concert, crushing people alive, and injuring hundreds of loyal fans, the same thing happens in college admissions. As more and more people apply to Ivys/Elites/Top LACs, it means that these same applicants are hedging their bets with tier 2/tier 3 schools and submitting their same perfect GPAs, near-perfect SAT and ACT scores as well to schools like Boston College, Northeastern, Tulane, Tufts, Boston University, NYU, Hamilton, Colgate, etc. Because only 5%-7% get into top schools, it means that 93-95% of those rejected will get into tier 2 and tier 3 schools and those schools now have superior stats as well. This ripple effect of higher SAT and ACT scores hurts anyone who really wanted to go to a T40 school because now to look competitive at BU or BC or NorthEastern , you need at least a 1500 ACT/33 ACT. If you actually look at the SAT/ACT scores of NorthEastern and BC/BU and Tuft, they are actually no different than Harvard, Yale, Brown, Princeton. The admit rates might be 18-19% versus 3-5% but the ACT/SAT stats and GPAs are no different than IVYs. Update 7.31.22. When I wrote this just 8 months ago, I didn't think that acceptance rates at a NorthEastern would drop to 6.79 and that BU/BC rates just in the low teens but they are.

This makes no sense. But it does when you realize that there is overcrowding of valedictorians at the gates of elite colleges. There are 25000 high schools in America, and there are fewer than 25000 seats at elite colleges so chances are that even if you are a valedictorian, you may not get into your college of choice. There is a trickle down effect that creates a paradigm shift of all test scores going up in the top 100 schools.

My recommendation to you is regardless of whether you were ranked #1 in your HS or #51 is to have a list of realistic backup schools where you see yourself enjoying your college experience, places where you'd see yourself happy to be part of. If your goal is to be an investment banker, doctor, attorney, engineer, or any other kind of professional, most of you know that where you go to grad school will matter more than where you attended undergrad. So keep your eye on the prize. You don't want to go to an Ivy or Elite or Top LAC and struggle and potentially have mental health issues because of the stress. That will be debilitating to your goal and will set you back. It's much better to aspire to be an A student at William & Mary or than barely-passing with a C+ GPA at MIT. Grad school admissions officers will scrutinize your undergraduate performance so you want to set yourself up for success, not failure. And for those of you that are great students that do not qualify for financial aid, try to apply to a few schools that give out merit scholarships. That will give you some more flexibility and not stress out your parents too much. It's no fun to graduate from a good college with $150,000 of debt and then have to put off your grad school because you don't want to take on another $150,000 of debt. It's much better to be as debt-free as possible and graduate with a tier 2 school , especially if you are planning to continue on with 3 or 4 years of grad school after undergrad.

Hopefully, some of you will read through this and learn something and make some tweaks to your college list before all the RD application due dates.

Good luck everyone and I hope you have a great Thanksgiving.

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2 years ago

This is really insightful. Thanks

🎤2 years ago

@sarah12345678 you are most welcome


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Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


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