November 26

The Optional SAT Test Might Not Be So Optional to Students

By Sara Kadam

With students already having a lot on their plate with college applications, not to mention the stress that comes along with it, covid-19 has further added to the burden on students’ shoulders. With testing centers rapidly cancelling tests during these unprecedented times, most universities were forced to amend their college requirements by either going test-optional, test-blind, test-flexible or dropping the testing requirement altogether. Whilst these changes were made for the convenience of students, the Atlantic reports that, students continued to sign up for these tests, sometimes going an extra mile (quite literally) to drive to neighboring cities or even flying to other states. This raises a critical question about the importance of the SAT/ACT during admissions. It is important to note that the global pandemic has not initiated this debate but has merely catalyzed it. It is also critical to look at the topic of discussion not only with regards to the admissions process, but also from students’ perspectives. After all, they are one of the major, if not the only, stakeholders in this case.

There have been multiple articles about the future of the SAT/ACT, but finding one about what students think about the amended college requirements is not as easy. In order to address the dearth of students’ voices, we at building-U have conducted a survey of 25 anonymous students, domestic as well as international, addressing multiple aspects of the test taking process, including: one’s likelihood of taking the test, preferability of universities going test-optional/ discontinuing them altogether, students’ point of view on how their test scores affect their future, test preparation process and their final score. Unsurprisingly, 92% of the respondents were either planning to or had already taken the SAT/ACT, with most of them suggesting that the tests were likely to increase their chances of getting into their desired college. The surety of these responses is rather muddled considering the fact that:

  1. College admissions often officers reiterate the relatively small  importance of standardized testing
  2. There is continually increasing consensus for either the test becoming optional or being discontinued altogether

The assessment of the survey also suggests that 68% students prefer to have universities going test optional with the most dominant reasons being

  1.  “Standardized” tests are not a reflection of one’s merit or intelligence
  2.    Disadvantageous to a certain demographic of people.
  3.    Lack of accessibility during corona

Despite the above data, it can be inferred that the reason students continue to sign up for SAT/ACT is because these tests act as a validating measure of their academic success in high school, and its absence will leave students with nothing to hang on to for affirmation. An article published by the New York Times refers to standardized testing as “more democratic and accessible than many of the other metrics used to evaluate applicants,” although in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 60 percent of colleges have opted to go test-optional for the fall 2021 admissions cycle. However, some other prominent universities such as the UCs intend to drop the SAT/ACT requirement and develop their own tests,“We are removing the ACT/SAT requirement for California students and developing a new test that more closely aligns with what we expect incoming students to know to demonstrate their preparedness for UC,” says UC President Janet Napolitano. While an approach to making a more “equitable” test that emphasizes testing students’ “broad based values” may be a good move, it only exemplifies the previously-mentioned quote from the New York Times, and reaffirms that some form of “standardized” testing, if not the SATs or ACTs, is here to stay. There are two major points that need to be taken into account:

  1. If every university starts developing their own tests that puts focus on testing the students for values the university stands for, needless to say, we are essentially retrograding to an even worse scenario especially in terms of students’ mental health and academic course load.
  2. Even though universities this year have been reassuring students that not reporting their test scores won’t put them at a disadvantage, one must check which universities were test- optional before the pandemic struck and had already independently determined their position on testing, and which universities had no choice but to modify their testing requirement this year, since these two cases are fundamentally different. 

  Going test-optional is preferable for both students who want to as well as those who don’t want to take any standardized testing. “Standardized tests don’t really accurately determine the type of student one is, but also a high score may be indicative of hard work and determination, so I think test optional is best,” says one respondent; a notion which is explicitly shared by many other students who preferred the tests be made optional.

It goes without saying that the prospect of standardized testing is very stressful for students. When asked about how much their thoughts and future plans are tied up with thinking about taking the SAT/ACT, on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being just ‘a passing thought’ and 10 being ‘it consumes my life’) 78% respondents fell into the bracket of 5-10. When further asked about how much their thoughts and future plans are tied to how much they score on the SAT/ACT, on the same scale, 68% fell into the range of 5-10 with a worrying number of 32% selecting a perfect 10.The irony lies in the fact that when asked about how much of their time and thoughts are tied to preparing for the SAT/ACT 32% respondents selected a 5. This data is not in sync with students’ responses on the tests’ anticipated impact on their future.This begs two crucial questions: “Why do students place less significance on preparing for, and spending time on, something that they indicate more significantly impacts their future?”, and “Why do students feel that so much of their academic worth and future ‘success’ is tied up in this test?” Interestingly, many responses were equivocal; students were aware that standardized scores weren’t a mark of intelligence or predictive of their future success, but couldn’t help but feel anxious about them. “This test basically feels like it defines my life, I feel like the SAT is determining how worthy I am, although I know it’s somewhat not true, it consumes up a lot of my thoughts and gives me a lot of anxiety because I feel like this is determining my acceptance into the life I want. I’m also pressured by my parents to do very well and I don’t want to disappoint them, it’s a while away but I stress about it everyday,” says one respondent. Another student also mentions going as far as practicing the test with a mask on, and how that negatively affected their score: “wearing a mask while taking the SAT is extremely difficult. When I took a practice SAT with a mask on at home, my score went down 200 points from its normal range. My glasses fog up with masks, so I had to wear contacts, and you constantly have to blink with contacts on, so you can’t stare at the questions very long without blinking. Also can’t drink water, or take deep breaths to calm down, either. So overall, taking the SAT during the pandemic is a whole other level of difficulty on an already super difficult test,” quotes the student. Needless to say, anxiety and stress of this kind can be detrimental to one’s emotional and mental well being. Nonetheless, it is important to take into consideration, that there are students who feel test scores provide an added piece of information to their application, and may even boost their chances of getting admitted to their university of choice. This is not possible if test requirements are dropped altogether.

            In the end,  opinions of students who prefer universities going test optional appear to both outweigh and unite the disparity in the extremely polarized opinions of students who either want mandatory testing or want the tests to discontinue altogether,a result that may not be so surprising or unexpected. All-in-all the most significant takeaway from the above research is the small but very clear fact that students seem to hang their personal worth, academic merit, and prospect for future success on a testing system that is at best tenuous and at worst meaningless — something that warrants both concern and more  discussion with students, not just universities and test makers.

Works Cited

  1. Wertheimer, Linda K. “Colleges Are Making the SAT and ACT Optional Now. Will That Stick?” The Boston Globe, 1 May 2020,
  2. Currid-halkett, Elizabeth. “A Pandemic Isn’t a Reason to Abolish the SAT.” The New York Times. May 01, 2020. Accessed November 26, 2020.
  3. Selingo, Jeffrey. “The SAT and the ACT Will Probably Survive the Pandemic-Thanks to Students.” The Atlantic. September 16, 2020. Accessed November 26, 2020.
  4. President, UC Office of the. “University of California Board of Regents Unanimously Approved Changes to Standardized Testing Requirement for Undergraduates.” University of California. November 24, 2020. Accessed November 26, 2020.,said%20UC%20President%20Janet%20Napolitano.