Fall 2022 Newsletter
We hope you all had an enjoyable and relaxing summer and are ready for the next school year!
In the past, we’ve used our newsletter to update you on new developments at the Winter Learning Group. While we will still do that here, we also want to share our analysis of recent developments in test prep and college admissions. Every quarter, we hope to send a newsletter on a topic of interest to our clients navigating the changing college admissions landscape. If you’d like to unsubscribe for any reason, please respond to this email. Otherwise, please feel free to circulate this and future newsletters to friends and family.
Test scores are up, and admission rates are down
Over the last 9 months, we have felt the temperature in the room increase dramatically.
Driven in part by the near universal adoption of test optional policies, applications have skyrocketed and acceptance rates have continued to decrease at highly selective schools since 2020. Schools have a clear incentive to remain test optional. Test optional policies encourage more students to apply to the most selective institutions, and they simultaneously allow admissions offices to pursue diversity and even fiscal mandates that were more difficult to achieve in a test-required system.
We’ve sensed that our clients and especially our students are feeling more anxiety and pressure than ever before about the admissions process, particularly regarding standardized testing. Prospective clients are contacting us earlier, and we have more Seniors re-taking the fall tests than we ever have since we started in 2009. Below, we’ll lay out why we think that’s happening.
Test optional policies have made college admissions even more opaque
With a few notable exceptions (MIT), colleges have opted to remain test optional for at least the next two admissions cycles. As we have emphasized in the past, “test-optional” can mean a very wide range of things, and the role that tests play in admissions decisions can vary greatly not only from school to school but also from student to student. This ambiguity has led to enormous uncertainty for our students.
As a result, we have seen many families in our market double-down on testing as an insurance policy, or “better safe than sorry.” Schools ostensibly hoped that their test optional policies would ease some of the anxiety surrounding testing, admissions, and the pandemic, but the reality has been the opposite. Students who plan to apply to highly selective schools are almost universally pursuing standardized testing.
Interestingly, even many historically test-optional liberal arts colleges continue to primarily admit students submitting test scores. 88% of Bowdoin’s freshman class this fall submitted test scores, despite Bowdoin being test optional since the late 1960s. At Wesleyan, another school at the forefront of the test optional movement, 78% of enrolled freshmen this Fall submitted either an SAT or ACT score. In 2005, Bates College backed up its 1984 decision to go test optional with a study finding no difference in academic performance between those submitting scores and those not. Even so, in 2021, 59% of enrolled freshmen at Bates submitted a test score.
However, without a seat in the admissions office, it is nearly impossible to know whether the admitted students at Bowdoin, Wesleyan, or Bates benefited from their scores. A student with a great score on the ACT or SAT is also likely to excel in other areas of the application. In other words, these numbers might reflect correlation rather than causation. For that reason, we continue to urge our students to rely on their in-school college advisors for guidance, as they typically have robust historical data about how students at their school have performed at given colleges.
Reported test scores for highly selective schools have gone up, but test scores have not
Adding fuel to the fire, highly selective colleges are reporting much higher test scores than they did prior to the pandemic. Two examples illustrate this broader trend: whereas the reported range (25th to 75th percentile) of ACT scores for UPenn in 2017 was 32-35, it is now 35-36; at the University of Miami, the range increased from 28-32 to 31-34. We think there are two major reasons:
First, students who would have been admitted in the past with lower scores are simply not sending them, and that allows schools to report a higher score range.
Second, “superscoring” has become the norm at almost every test-optional school, which allows students (and the schools) to form a new composite score from their best individual section scores. Superscoring was not nearly as common 5-10 years ago, but both the College Board and the ACT have pushed colleges to accept it, in part we suspect to encourage students to take the tests more times. As a result, score ranges like the ones listed above represent results not from one sitting but often from multiple attempts at the test.
At the same time, the average ACT score across the country has actually declined by a half point since 2018, and 40% fewer students took the ACT. In fact, there were actually 20% (or 8,500) fewer 34s, 35s, and 36s in 2021 than in 2018.
Students are pursuing test prep later, but that should not mean longer
Still, we’ve noticed that students and families have internalized the trend of higher reported scores. Students who in the past would have happily taken their 32 or 33 in June of Junior year came back to us this summer to reach for another point or two. As much as our goal is to lower the stakes, our students are feeling more pressure from colleges to achieve these high scores. This has created a new set of challenges for us as test prep coaches.
Our goal has always been to get our students the best test scores possible as efficiently as possible. As a result, we’ve always been huge believers in fall senior year testing. While other test prep companies encourage students to start prepping in Sophomore year, we have always believed that nobody should start in earnest before summer before their Junior year, and even that is too early for many students. We’ve even seen this backed up by real data. The later you test in the process, the higher your overall score will be.
Unless a student can reach 34 or the 1500s, they are leaving points on the board by aiming to finish test prep before June of Junior year. By starting the process too early, students are simply signing up to spend more time, energy, and resources that won’t necessarily make a higher score more likely. In fact, those students are the most likely candidates to burn out, and they often reach the fall of Senior year without the energy they need to obtain those last two points.
We recommend that most students and families take a step back and start in October of Junior year. The end result will be the same (in the worst case scenario, a few months later), and most importantly, it will entail less time, money, and stress.
As always, we rely on your support. If you know anyone who might benefit from our services, please pass our contact information along! We look forward to continuing to help you and your students this fall.
Jason and Tom