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Test Scores and Milkshakes

I spent Monday evening at the Fir Tree. We’re careening toward the October 15 Early Action deadline at a handful of colleges — South Carolina, UNC, and the University of Georgia, most notably — and we’ve built a tradition of opening the Fir Tree for seniors to send in applications. We provide milkshakes and last-minute advice, and they click submit surrounded by friends and plates of fries. Even in a COVID world, the energy in that space on these evenings is upbeat and supportive. It’s a real highlight.
In that setting, guys are checking over their items for a final time, and things get real. Which activity really is the most rewarding for me? Does my essay share something important, or will the reader think it’s trivial? Does my SAT score represent my academic ability, or will it hold me back in the admission process?

Before this year, that last question wasn’t asked very often. Almost all of these October 15 colleges required a score submission, so it didn’t much matter what a score represented. You submitted it. Maybe you gritted your teeth, but you submitted it.

Fast forward to Monday evening. A number of boys were concerned about score submission and new test-optional policies. For the first time, each student had to think carefully about his score [and its constituent parts] to determine whether it represented him well in each application process. If he thought he should withhold the score, there was a follow-up question: how will my application prove to the college that I’ll succeed academically?

While selective college admissions in the United States is largely a black box — that is, we don’t know exactly what happens inside — admissions officers tell us that, in lieu of a test score, colleges will rely more heavily on a combination of course selections and grade performance to understand academic potential. Well crafted essays and recommendation letters from teachers will help nail down intellectual ability, as well.

As you support your sons in their quest for college, you might frame your test-optional thinking around the ideas below. While you read, grab a milkshake yourself. You’ve earned it.

  • Colleges won’t fault a student for withholding a score. Nearly 600 colleges have signed a statement affirming that no student will be disadvantaged by withholding a test score. We take the colleges at their word, and we expect them to reimagine their selection processes to accommodate test-less decisions.

  • Know a college’s mid-50. Cialfo shows middle-50% ACT and SAT ranges for admitted students at each college in its database. College Navigator, on the Admissions tab, also shares this information. In general, if an applicant’s highest score lands inside or above the mid-50 range at a given college, he can feel good about submitting his test.

  • Know the score breakdown. It’s one thing to have an ACT Composite of 28. It’s another to have an ACT Composite of 28 alongside a Math score of 22. Your son should understand the difference, and how each component of the score might be reviewed if he decides to submit.

    • Compare transcript and scores. Your son might think about the rigor of the Woodberry curriculum and how his grades tell his academic story. If he attempted a range of honors courses and earned a strong GPA, it might be worth withholding a borderline score. After all, the transcript will tell a more compelling story. On the other hand, a weaker transcript might inspire a student to submit a score on the bubble.

  • If your son is stuck. If he thinks his score is borderline, or if there are compelling cases both to submit and to withhold, he can ask himself a simple question: do I think this score is indicative of my ability? If the answer is “yes,” then a submission is just fine. Otherwise, he should feel free to withhold. We’re happy to have this conversation with him, as well, in light of specific circumstances. There isn’t always a clear answer, but we can puzzle out a best guess together.
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Woodberry Forest admits students of any race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religious belief, and national or ethnic origin to all of the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, sexual orientation, disability, religious belief, or national or ethnic origin in the administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic or other school-administered programs. The school is authorized under federal law to enroll nonimmigrant students.