What replaces the SAT and ACT?

COVID-19 may be the start of the end for using the SAT and ACT in admissions for the majority of colleges. While institutions like Harvard and Yale have reaffirmed continuing to use the exams, many colleges have moved to test optional, and there is increasing movement to test blind. There are now over 1,200 four-year institutions that have test optional or test blind policies according to Fairtest.org. Notably, the University of California system recently voted to phase out the use of the SAT in admissions over the next four years merely months after reaffirming their commitment to the SAT pre-COVID-19.

I’m not going to focus on whether schools should or should not use the SAT and ACT in admissions, but rather, I wonder, what could replace the SAT and ACT in the admissions process (if anything)? Colleges have been giving us hints for years, and the answer appears to be writing.

The primary purpose of a college application is to prove the student will be successful in college and beyond. Writing is one of the most critical skills for success in college and life. Yet, we know most students struggle with writing. Three-quarters of high school students score below proficient on writing. One-third of college students are in remedial English courses, and three-quarters of students in remedial courses don’t make it to sophomore year.

Over 1,000 colleges have already made writing part of the application process by requiring at least one essay such as the Common Application Essay. Some colleges require two, three, or even seven essays. The common thread between these essays today is the focus on the students’ personality traits and experiences. The essays’ content helps serve as proof that the student will be successful in college and beyond. However, these essays may take on additional meaning in a test optional and test blind world. Essays may serve as a signal of a student’s academic prowess – i.e., proof that the student can write clearly and coherently.

Colleges that were test-optional before COVID-10 offer more hints as to the role writing may play in the future of admissions. Some have a “graded writing sample” to provide insight into a student’s writing abilities. A graded writing sample requires students to submit an essay they wrote for a class, including the teachers’ grades and comments. Test-optional colleges such as Chatham University, Lewis and Clark College, Austin College, and Lake Erie College all require graded writing sample for students applying without test scores. In 2019, Princeton University started requiring a graded writing sample for all applicants, even though Princeton still required the SAT. In 2020, we’re already hearing that some schools going test-optional are planning to add graded writing samples.

Colleges are adding the graded writing sample because it helps admissions officers better understand if a student will be capable of the academic rigor of the institution. The grade and comments the teacher wrote on the essay aren’t important. The “graded” part merely serves as a mechanism for ensuring the student doesn’t write an entirely different essay to use for their application. Instead, admissions officers are looking at the quality of the writing with a focus on the higher-order aspects that are needed for success in college – content, structure, and clarity.

Without SAT or ACT scores, colleges will continue to find methods that enhance their ability to find students who will be successful in college and beyond. GPA is a good indicator, but grading methods are not standard across high schools. AP Exams are standardized, but not all students take them. Without standardized testing, increasing the use of writing in admissions can add to the data admissions departments have when evaluating whether a student is likely to be academically successful at their institution. I expect we’ll see the prominence of writing grow in the admissions process in the coming years.