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College Admissions Tests in the Age of Covid-19

“The inequalities are rattling across the whole system, becoming quite a bit more evident. But colleges are recognizing this; they just don’t know what to do.”

Joshua Hirschstein, MA, Director of the Lane Tutoring Service

In May, the University of California System voted to “dump” the requirement for SAT and ACT test scores as part of an incoming freshman’s university application through the 2024 school year. One reason was that many institutions were unsure about the security of standardized exams taken via proctored sessions from home. Bianca Quilantan, writing for Politico, proclaims, “The coronavirus has conquered even the SAT.” Other schools like Cornell University, Fordham University, Vassar College, and Tufts University soon followed the same route and suspended SAT and ACT requirements through the 2021 school year.

A few weeks later, Oregon Family Magazine explained just how many schools have been affected by Covid-19, providing information about regional coverage for college admissions testing and support. Many well-known institutions have made the submissions of SAT scores optional beginning fall 2021, according to the Summit Educational Group. That said, there are still a number of colleges requiring those test scores, especially elite and Ivy League schools.

Keep reading to learn more about how college testing and admissions have changed for aspiring students during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Meet the Expert: Joshua Hirschstein, Owner and Director of Lane Tutoring Service

Joshua Hirschstein

Joshua Hirschstein is the owner and director of the Lane Tutoring Service, headquartered in Eugene, Oregon. Hirschstein holds an MA in education from UC Berkeley, with a specialization in writing education, learning theory, and critical thinking skills. He founded LTS in 1990.

Hirschstein earned two BAs in english and education from Western Washington University. Before moving to Eugene, he worked as a tutor, ESL instructor, and high school teacher in both Seattle and Kathmandu.

SAT Scores: Required or Optional?

“A lot of families get very focused on SAT or ACT exams, but it’s questionable how much those weigh on most applications,” says Hirschstein. “They’re rarely the item that sways the admissions department over other qualities. Most colleges have waived the requirement that students take the SAT for fall 2021.”

Hirschstein points out that while test scores are not good predictors of a student’s performance in college, they do correlate well with one variable: parental income. “If you were to look at the statistics for income levels, you can just about predict what students’ scores are going to be before they even take the exam,”

He also discussed the racial differences among admissions test-takers: “Racial inequalities become quite evident in the samples of students…The test is biased to certain types of education received by those who are in wealthier school districts and to adhere to more traditional models of higher-level education.”

Fortunately, there is evidence that test scores are not nearly as important these days—especially in the wake of the pandemic. Covid-19 has changed the traditional purpose of the SAT and the ACT for entering freshmen. Some graduate schools have even waived requirements for GMAT and GRE scores.

Going forward into 2021, Hirschstein says that because SAT and ACT exam scores are optional at so many institutions, most of the scores submitted will be from students who did exceedingly well. This means the statistics will not reflect the true story of all the students who took advantage of schools waiving those requirements.

Admissions Without Test Scores: What Are Colleges Looking For?

Traditionally, some colleges have interviews or recommendations, and there’s a number of other ways to get a sense of a student’s academic potential beyond standardized exams.

Hirschstein says, “Perhaps the personal essay becomes a little more important because we don’t have this other metric. Through the essay, colleges can see the quality of a student’s mind. I can imagine that colleges are interested in how students have dealt with the challenges since the beginning of the year. These are metrics that are not numerical. It’s the voice of the student that’s coming through in that essay. It’s the time they put in—it’s the focus they had in trying to say something of substance.”

The College Board, along with the National Merit Scholarship Corporation, has included an essay prompt on the SAT in the past, but as Hirschstein notes, “That has been a marked failure.” Though some universities might still require completing the 50-minute essay on the SAT, the colleges have dropped it from SAT score submission requirements.

“I’ll put it this way: good writers can write poorly sometimes, at any given moment. It’s a bad metric to just look at, ‘What you can do for 45 minutes?’ You’ve been sitting there, taking a multiple-choice test for four hours; you’re stressed; you’re probably hungry; your mind is already fried because a lot of those SAT questions are tough. It’s not a good measure, and everyone knows that. So, again, I think that personal essay [on college applications] will become a little more important.”

The Future of Admissions and Testing Under Covid-19

As of August 2020, a staggering number of schools have already changed the submission of SAT or ACT scores to an optional requirement.

“The logistics of it and the value of taking it is about to be rawly experienced by the colleges not being able to use it for a year,” Hirschtein says. “So, does it really make a difference? If it doesn’t make a difference, then it’s a waste of time and money—and all we’re doing is supporting a testing industry. Another challenge that students are having is a lot of the colleges are moving to an online platform.”

Hirschstein raises many other valid questions that are on the minds of his tutees:

  • How do you interact with your professors through an online platform?
  • How do you get to know your fellow students if you’re sequestered in a basement?
  • If you’re a professor, how do you engage your students?

“There’s a lot of worry from parents and students about what college will offer, whether it’s something they can participate in, or whether it’s something that will give them any advantage. I think that a lot of people don’t know,” explains Hirschstein.

“The inequalities are rattling across the whole system, becoming quite a bit more evident. But colleges are recognizing this; they just don’t know what to do. Right now, everyone is trying to plan for the opening of school coming up here in September.”

In terms of tips for prospective students entering their first year in fall 2020 or 2021, Hirschstein predicts that the essay and interview for university applications will become a prominent metric for determining eligibility for acceptance.

“I think that to really get the essay done, doing the interview, and making sure they’re on track with deadlines is important,” Hirschsten advises. “Also, staying in communication with the admissions department, asking questions—that’s going to weigh more going forward.”

Kenneth Parker

Kenneth Parker is a feature writer, poet, and musician living in the Pacific Northwest. His writing on remote work, education, and technology has been published by,, and other websites. His poetry, short fiction, and album reviews have appeared in Scifaikuest, Nanoism, and No Clean Singing. His background includes time spent as an associate editor, proofreader, private grammar instructor, freelance content editor, medical claims agent, and SEO consultant. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon, where he studied literature and worked as a composition tutor.