The College Guy: What’s up with the SAT changes?

  • Brennan Barnard

For the Monitor
Published: 1/25/2021 6:08:11 PM

What’s up with the SAT changes? Here are some answers from an expert:

Question: I’ve heard that there will be changes to the SAT next year. Is this true, and if so, can you explain?

Answer: What? Was there other news last week that caused the announcement by the College Board to be overlooked? Or were you too busy chuckling at Bernie memes to notice? Either way, you are partially correct, there are changes ahead with standardized testing, but the foundation of SAT itself is not being altered. Instead, the College Board, the organization that administers these college admission tests, issued a statement last Tuesday explaining that they are getting rid of the essay option, as well as all SAT Subject Tests.

The essay section of the SAT was already optional, as it is with the ACT. The reality was that fewer and fewer colleges were asking for students to complete the exam with the essay and were not using it in their admission decisions. Some students still felt compelled to take this version of the test, which not only added more time to an already lengthy endeavor, but also more expense. Furthermore, essay scores were widely criticized for inadequately representing an applicant’s strength as a writer, but were more indicative of how they had been prepped to match the specific style of the test. The elimination of the essay option simplifies the process and student uncertainty.

The sunsetting of the Subject Tests ideally does the same, removing another hurdle that has long been seen as contributing to an inequitable playing field in admission. Subject Tests are hour-long exams that are subject specific (English Literature, US History, Math, etc.), allowing applicants to demonstrate proficiency (or at least ability to take that test) in different disciplines. While at one time many highly selective colleges and universities required (or encouraged) students to submit scores from these tests, they had increasingly moved away from this barrier to applying, as they disproportionately benefited those with resources and more access to high-quality counseling. Like the essay, the Subject Tests will not be missed and are one less thing that students need to obsess about or that educators need to teach to in high school curricula.

More testing updates

While we are on the topic of standardized testing, you may wonder what role these tests will play in admission review, when current high school juniors apply to college next year. Due to COVID-19, a significant number of colleges and universities adopted test-optional policies for the Class of 2021, acknowledging that many students were unable to take the SAT or ACT because of canceled administrations. From large state systems like The University of California to Ivy League schools and other highly selective colleges, students were able to apply without submitting tests, and many did.

While it remains unclear at this point whether or not some of these institutions will extend these policies for another year, others have already done so. In California there is a moratorium on the use of standardized tests at all for the university system (they will not consider them even if students have taken the test). Other schools like Tufts University made their test-optional policy a three-year pilot when they made the announcement last summer. Still others like Penn State University and Amherst College have recently decided to remain test-optional for the coming year. An updated list of colleges and universities with test-optional policies is available at

It is difficult to predict at this moment whether or not SAT and ACT administrations will be widely available this spring and summer, as so much depends on the virus. If access is generally available to take either or both tests in the coming months, and students feel that they can do so safely, then it would be wise to take advantage of this opportunity. Schools are likely to return to requiring standardized tests for next year’s admission cycle. If administrations continue to be postponed or canceled then we will probably see another year of dropped testing requirements. Stay tuned, stay safe and stay healthy!

Do you have a question about college admission, the impact of the pandemic, and applications? Submit them to 

Brennan Barnard is the Director of College Counseling and Outreach at The Derryfield School and the College Admission Program Advisor at The Making Caring Common project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is co-author of the book, “The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.”

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