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“Test Optional” – What it Really Means + Why Your High Schooler Should Still Take the ACT or SAT Test

SAT Test Prep Lakeland

During the COVID pandemic, ACT and SAT testing was repeatedly postponed in 2020, leading to a domino effect that continues to worry local education leaders into 2021. The term “Test Optional” has become a common topic surrounding college admissions, and some students are delaying their preparations for the SAT or ACT or planning to skip them altogether.

We spoke with Kristi Anderson, Director of Huntington Learning Center in Lakeland, about the impact of SAT/ACT delays, and current misconceptions about colleges and universities making these tests optional. Our first conversation was in Summer 2020, with a follow up in January 2021 – this article has been updated to reflect the changes. Huntington Learning Center is a Lakeland Sponsor, they have many years of experience and a wealth of knowledge about issues related to education, tutoring, and college prep.

Read a summary of our conversation below. Huntington is also available to answer your specific questions about ACT and SAT prep and tutoring, call 863-709-9600 to learn more.

Editor’s Note: We recognize that standardized test scores are only one aspect of a student’s aptitude, and students who struggle with test-taking might not have a score that truly demonstrates their knowledge. Standardized testing is a separate conversation, today our goal is to help high school students and families understand how ACT and SAT scores are used outside of college applications and when to prepare for these tests. 

Q: What trend are you seeing right now with the SAT and ACT?

SAT and ACT Tests that were originally scheduled in Spring and Summer of 2020 were or canceled/postponed. While the testing schedule is finally back on track for 2021, we are still seeing a concerning trend of high school Juniors and Seniors delaying their SAT and ACT Tests, or even skipping them altogether.

This could become an issue if students need to re-take the test to raise their scores. Most students take the official test 2-3 times, and should ideally take the SAT or ACT for the first time in the fall of their Junior year. This schedule allows them time to utilize a Test Prep program and retake the test during the Spring of Junior year or fall of Senior year to achieve the score they need for their colleges of choice as well as Bright Futures or other scholarship programs.

Students typically decide months in advance when they will take the ACT vs. SAT (or both) and often spend the 8 to 12 weeks prior to test day preparing for the test.

Visit the College Board SAT Website or ACT Website to see upcoming SAT Test Dates and ACT Test Dates as well as registration deadlines. These websites can also help you find testing centers near you.

Q: We’ve been hearing the term “test-optional” lately – what does that mean?

It means that a college or university does not require the ACT or SAT as part of the college application and admission process. There are some schools that already offered test-optional admissions, and a second group of schools that temporarily suspended SAT/ACT requirements for students during the pandemic. Some test-optional colleges do have a minimum GPA requirement for the ACT/SAT to be optional, and most of them still accept test scores as part of the overall application. Also important to note, some schools only accept test-optional applications from in-state students. 

I want to be sure all parents and students realize that “test-optional” college applications are only available for select schools, it is not across the board for all colleges and universities, despite it being a trending topic over the past year. It also means that schools will scrutinize your GPA, extracurriculars, and other application details more thoroughly. 

It is extremely important to note that Florida’s Public Schools – the State University System of Florida – are NOT Test Optional. The SAT or ACT is required to apply for any of these schools for Fall 2021 (as of publishing date – 1/28/21). This includes Florida, Florida State, UCF, USF, FAMU, FAU, FIU, FGCU, UWF, New College, Poly.

Q: What kind of conversations are you having with parents and students about the “test-optional” trend? Is this something students should take advantage of and skip taking the SAT and ACT?

There has been a lot of discussion during the pandemic about college application requirements, with some students indicating they would like to skip the test and only apply for test-optional schools. While this seems like a good way to avoid the stress of taking these standardized tests, and may be the right path for some students, there are other ramifications students and parents may not realize. SAT and ACT scores are often required for scholarships and class placement, and can open up additional opportunities for students. 

Q: Can you talk about some of the most common ways SAT or ACT scores are used in addition to college admission applications?

Bright Futures – To qualify for a Bright Futures Scholarship from the State of Florida, a student must meet the required minimum score on either the ACT or SAT college entrance exam. The minimum scores must be met by June 30 of the high school graduation year. One of our biggest concerns is making sure students don’t miss out on the opportunity to qualify for Bright Futures because of misleading information about test-optional college admissions.

College Scholarships – Many scholarships require an SAT or ACT score to be submitted with the application, especially merit-based scholarships. Some schools even award automatic or guaranteed scholarships based on SAT/ACT scores and/or GPA. Some out of state schools will also give in-state tuition rates to out of students who meet specific GPA and test score criteria. This can be a huge savings! 

Admission to Specific Majors – Subject-specific Majors or Colleges within a university may require the SAT or ACT score for their own admission process.

Student Athletes – Athletes may need to meet GPA and test score requirements to play at D1 schools and to receive athletic scholarships.

Q: When should students start thinking about these tests? 

Ideally, a student should take the test for the first time in the fall of Junior year, allowing plenty of time to work on test prep if necessary. Most college applications are due in fall of Senior year, so the summer between Junior and Senior year is a great time to focus on the ACT or SAT for students planning on traditional college applications. Some students might also need to start thinking about the SAT or ACT as sophomores or juniors – student athletes and students applying to specific programs like dance or film may need scores as early as fall of their Junior year when they begin talking to college scouts.

Q: How can Huntington Learning Center help students prepare for the SAT or ACT?

At Huntington, we create a personalized plan for each and every student in our tutoring and test prep programs. For test prep, we start with a practice test to determine whether to focus on the SAT or ACT based on the student’s strengths. We also talk about goals – a student trying to obtain the highest score on the SAT will have a different study plan than a student who needs just 1 additional point on the ACT to qualify for a scholarship. We can also help students and families understand the difference between the ACT and SAT and decide which test to take.

Huntington’s Test Prep Programs are always one to one with experienced teachers and include content review based on student strengths and weaknesses, test-taking strategy, and work on timing. Our test prep includes SAT Practice Tests and ACT Practice Tests. We are happy to be offering both online and in-center sessions depending on student preference and comfort level. 

Visit our website to learn more or call us at 863-709-9600.

Q: What else can Juniors and Seniors do to prepare for college during this time of uncertainty?

In addition to SAT/ACT prep, this is a great time to look for local volunteer opportunities, start the Common App or Coalition App, research colleges online, and take virtual tours. Make a list of the schools you are applying for and their specific requirements. Start thinking about your essay(s) – some schools use the Common App or the Coalition App essay prompts. Others have their own essay or personal statement requirements. If you need recommendation letters, you need to have a plan of who you are going to ask and make sure you give them enough time to write you a good recommendation.

Q: Do you have any other advice for parents and students?

The last year has given us all a lot of challenges. Don’t lose sight of your goals or let yourself get thrown off track for the college admissions process. We are here to help in any way we can. Please reach out and let us know what we can do for you. We even offer free community workshops on this and other education-related topics. If you would like to host one, please let us know. 

Additional Resources: 

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