What Juniors Need to Know About the SAT and ACT

What Juniors Need to Know About the SAT and ACT

What Juniors Need to Know About the SAT and ACT

By: Jed Applerouth, PhDFor high school juniors, it’s prime time for college admissions testing. But, this year, the testing landscape has changed. The testing options have been simplified, more colleges are test-optional than ever before, and students must determine whether test scores will help them stand out in the most competitive admissions landscape in history. Students on the testing path must craft a plan that navigates these changes.

Simplified options and more bandwidth for SAT/ACT testing

In late January, the College Board announced that it is permanently retiring the SAT Subject Tests and will sunset the SAT essay in June. Students will never again have to worry about squeezing SAT Subject Tests into their testing plan. Students can sharpen their focus on the four sections of the SAT and ACT and no longer allocate any resources to the optional essay. Testing is being streamlined and focused: this is a good thing for students. 

Crafting a testing plan during a pandemic

With the Subject Tests and essays out of the picture, students now have two key tasks when it comes to making a testing plan: (1) determine whether to focus on the SAT or ACT, and (2) schedule their official test dates. 

  • How do I decide which test is right for me?

The best way to choose between the SAT and ACT is to take a full-length, proctored practice test of each. Applerouth is hosting a Winter Testing Weekend February 20-21. Students can take a practice SAT and ACT test from the comfort of home to determine which test is right for them. You can sign up here to join thousands of students across the country who will be taking free practice tests to help them select their best testing option.

Students and parents who want additional information about the tests have an opportunity to learn more during a webinar we’ll be hosting this Wednesday, January 27th. You can sign up for that free event here

  • When should I test?

Once students identify their optimal test, they must develop a prep plan and schedule their test dates. Most juniors will want to complete testing by October of their senior year, before the early application deadlines for most schools. Early applicants often have a significant advantage in admission. 

To complete testing by October, students will need to choose from among the following remaining test dates. 

SAT dates: March 13, May 8, June 5, August 28, October 2.

ACT dates: February 6, April 17, June 12, July 17, Sep (TBD), October (TBD) 

Beyond the national testing administrations, many schools across the country have been offering school-day administrations of both the SAT and ACT to hundreds of thousands of students. Those tests can become part of a student’s testing plan as well.

  • How many times should I plan to take the tests?

Typically we advocate a student take the SAT or ACT three times to achieve an optimal score. We are hopeful this will be possible for many students given the current testing conditions. Some students may have to settle for taking it once or twice depending on test availability and conditions in their home city. 

  • How does COVID-19 affect my testing timeline? 

Planning for testing during a pandemic is not easy. Recently, the testing agencies have been able to make room for more students, with fewer hiccups, but surprises still happen. Additionally, test availability varies greatly by region. Students on the west coast, for example, have far fewer testing opportunities than those on the east coast. Testing availability will fluctuate until we get a better handle on the pandemic.

As a general rule, students who are prepared for the test, feel safe given personal and family health concerns, and can obtain testing seats relatively close to home, should consider registering for upcoming tests

If students are registered for a test date that is cancelled, they will typically have priority registration for the next available test date. It’s reasonable to prepare for an upcoming SAT or ACT administration this winter or spring, knowing that there is a possibility that a student will have to delay their official test. Students can use the extra time to continue and enhance their level of preparedness.  

  • Should I sign up for both the SAT and ACT?

We typically advise that students determine their best test and then stick with that test all the way through the process. However, this year, some regions will have greater availability for one test over the other. The SAT and ACT have 80% overlapping content and if many more SATs than ACTs are available in an area, for example, it may be prudent to take the SAT, even if a student had been preparing for the ACT. (The converse is also true.) Shifting tests is not problematic when necessary. 

Thinking about testing in the context of test-optional admissions

Hundreds of selective colleges and universities across the country shifted to test-optional admissions last year when COVID-19 prevented students from testing. This shift is still relatively new, but early decision admissions data from current seniors (the high school class of 2021) gives us some sense of how these new policies are changing the admissions landscape. Current juniors will want to be aware of these emerging trends as they make their testing plans. 

  • A rise in applications and decrease in admissions rates

Test-optional policies have led to record high application numbers at highly selective colleges and universities. Previous research by our colleague Andrew Belasco and associates has demonstrated that, when colleges go test-optional, students who would have previously opted out of applying to a school because of their lower test scores now join the applicant pool. 

Higher applicant numbers lead to lower admissions rates. Across the country, selective schools who dropped testing requirements during the pandemic have become much more selective. Harvard saw its early applicant pool increase by a whopping 57 percent over last year, driving its early action acceptance rate down to a mere 7.4 percent (compared to 13.9% last year). UVA saw a 38% increase in early applications, along with 29% for Rice, 22% for Brown, and 18% for Duke, to list a handful of the hundreds of selective schools who saw applicant numbers surge. 

Regular Decision applications have also skyrocketed. NYU has topped all private universities, surpassing the 100,000 application threshold, and our colleagues tell us UCLA has to wade through 150,000 applications to find the 6,000 or so students who will enroll. In a letter to colleagues, the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke announced that the university received 49,500 applications, a number that far exceeded their predictions and will result in a regular decision acceptance rate of 4.5%-5%. These numbers are sobering. 

Now, more than ever, students will need to find ways to distinguish themselves in an increasingly crowded field. 

  • A decrease in the percentage of students submitting scores

In ordinary times, a college with a test optional admissions policy would still receive test scores from 70 to 90% of applicants, and test score submitters would constitute the vast majority of accepted students. The lane for test-optional applicants has traditionally been small relative to the size of the class. 

However, COVID-19 has disrupted the testing landscape, driving rates of score submission to unprecedented lows. Duke has reported that only 60% of this year’s early applicants submitted test scores. Our colleagues have reported that SAT and ACT submission rates for early applicants were 54% for Washington University, 42% for Middlebury, 40% for Boston College, and a mere 30% for Boston University. 

Whether such low submission rates will hold in the future remains to be seen. Due to the pandemic, students who ordinarily would have submitted scores withheld them. COVID-19 prevented many students from taking the SAT and ACT and we might anticipate an uptick in the percentage of students who submit test scores once the pandemic has resolved, even if test-optional policies remain in place. 

Although we are in the depths of the pandemic, there will be a return to normalcy. In time, the bottlenecks and capacity constraints that have been a hallmark of testing under COVID-19 will be gone. What then? How will colleges respond? How will students respond?

  • Many colleges will likely remain test-optional 

Many colleges and universities will reinstate test requirements after COVID-19, but many more colleges are likely to maintain those test-optional policies into the future. The incredible increases in applicant numbers will be reason enough to maintain test-optional policies. Going forward, most students will have a choice of whether to submit or withhold their SAT and ACT scores.

Deciding Whether to Take the Test and Submit Scores

One tried and true method to distinguish oneself academically is through strong numbers in the quantitative trifecta: a high GPA, a high proportion of rigorous classes, and high test scores. While students do not have the option of submitting or withholding their GPA or their class schedule, they now have the choice of whether to submit or withhold test scores. This is a highly individualized decision that depends heavily on the student’s individual application and the schools they are considering

Generally, if a student has competitive scores for any of the schools on their list, they should submit those scores. Competitive test scores only serve as further evidence of the student’s readiness to succeed at the college in question.

  • Is there a submission advantage?

The answer to this critical question is unclear. Admissions officers have assured students that they would have an equal shot at admissions with or without a test score during the pandemic. This seemed to play out at Tufts where 57% of its early applicants did not submit test scores and 56% of students were admitted without scores. However there seems to be a test-score advantage at Penn: 62% of its ED applicants submitted scores and 75% of its ED admits had test scores. Until we have data from more schools, the question of the submission advantage will remain elusive. 

  • How do test scores affect merit-based aid? 

While test scores are a factor in admissions, they also factor into merit-based financial aid decisions at many colleges and universities. Many colleges and universities allocate merit-aid based on a combination of grades and scores and test scores are often required for students to be eligible for merit-based aid, even at test-optional schools. There has been so much grade inflation in recent decades that allocating merit aid by GPA alone can be problematic. While an A has become an average grade at many high schools, testing thresholds can create greater distinctions across students.


As we learn more about college admission policies for the high school class of 2022, we will keep you informed. We expect many more announcements this spring, including the release of admissions data from a broad array of colleges. The more we know how test scores impacted the class of high school class of 2021, the more we can inform the class of 2022. Students will have more choices going forward: how to present themselves to colleges, which areas to focus on, which strengths to lead with. Understanding the evolving testing and admissions landscapes can help students optimize these choices.