time for change on letterboard

by Emily Toffelmire, former admissions officer at University of Southern California

Another week, another announcement that makes the college admission testing landscape feel more unpredictable than season three of Game of Thrones (yet, thankfully, much less violent). However, we can’t help but think most people were happy to hear the news that two pieces of College Board testing will be discontinued: the SAT Subject Tests and the optional essay section of the general SAT. For those of you who are saying, “Wait, what were the SAT Subject Tests—was I supposed to take those?!” let’s back up and explain these two soon-to-be-defunct items.

SAT Subject Tests: You can think of these as bite-sized SATs. Each hour-long test focused on one academic subject; everything from Modern Hebrew to Chemistry to US History was offered. If you haven’t heard much about these tests, it’s because a dwindling number of colleges expected students to take them. Requirements or recommendations for these exams were most likely to come from extremely selective colleges and/or very competitive STEM programs, particularly engineering and computer science, which liked to see students submit scores from math and science subject tests. As of last week, though, when the College Board announced SAT Subject Tests were being axed, that expectation is off the table.

The fine print: There will be two more test dates (in May and June 2021) for international students, as they may need the results for reasons beside admission to college. If you’re a student in the U.S. who was registered for an SAT Subject Test, you should receive a notification and a refund from College Board. We recommend you spend the newly free hour luxuriating in the fact that you are not taking a test.

SAT essay section: The essay portion of the SAT never got much love. Added in 2005 as a mandatory component, it was scaled back to optional in 2016. College Board has been vague on their reasons for putting the essay section out to pasture, but their claim that, “The tasks on the SAT Reading and Writing and Language sections [i.e. not the essay section] are among the most effective and predictive parts of the SAT,” seems like a euphemistic way of saying the essay portion was the least valid section of their exam.

The fine print: If you’re signed up for the SAT through June, you can still opt to take the essay portion or, if you signed up for the essay but no longer want to write it, you can cancel that section. An important note: the SAT essay isn’t entirely dead yet (cue the Monty Python GIFs)—it will live on in states where it is required as part of SAT School Day administrations. If you’re not sure if this affects you, check with your school counseling office.

So, two fewer pieces of testing to worry about, which may beg the question: What will this change about the application review process? My guess: not much! Because there was such a small percentage of colleges requiring or recommending SAT Subject Tests to begin with, their disappearance will likely not shake up the review process dramatically. We assume that any weight they carried will shift to other factors. Namely, the transcript and, where applicable, AP and IB exams. If an engineering program can no longer ask for your SAT Subject scores in Math 2 and Physics, they will simply focus even more attention than before on your math and science curriculum and performance in high school. I think the loss of the SAT essay will have even less impact. This section of the exam was already dying on the vine as fewer and fewer colleges required or recommended it. Personally, I never found the essay score to be helpful and, instead, I focused on students’ application essays, as well as their English curriculum and grades, to gauge their writing skills. The SAT essay goes out not with a bang, but a whimper, and I doubt most admission officers will even notice it’s gone.

Stay tuned to our blog as more testing news continues to break—because you know it will.

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Written by Emily Toffelmire
Emily Toffelmire is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions consultants. Prior to joining College Coach, Emily worked as an admissions officer at University of Southern California as well as a college counselor at high schools in the US and Thailand. Visit our website to learn more about Emily Toffelmire.