No test scores? What will matter on your college app this year

If you’re a senior you may have an SAT test date registered, but you might also very well be watching it pass by…much like this year. With a majority of colleges becoming test optional or negating the submission of test scores in the review process entirely, it can be hard as a student to know what matters and how to present yourself in a strong light.

First it is important to recognize that while test scores have played a role in an admission review, it has not always been the strongest determinant in a decision. Classes and grades and course rigor (a.k.a. the advanced classes like APs/honors you take that showcase depth and strength in academics) has always and will continue to be one of the strongest considerations in an admission decision (source).

Your transcript, the progression of grades and how you have added academic rigor and strength over time is a big factor in predicting success at college.

Keep in mind your grades and classes are always contextual. Meaning, within what has been available to you and also within context of larger outside factors that may or may not have affected your grades (COVID, a family matter, a diagnosis, etc.) It is important to remember as a student if you have had something significant happen to you outside of your control that has affected your grades, it is up to you to share that in your application. Admissions will not fault you for a semester that was less than stellar if it’s not an academic reflection of where you are.

If you do not have a copy, download and get access to your transcript (unofficial is fine) and review it. Check for any errors and look at the progression of your grades in total. GPA is one thing, but looking at how you have grown and added academic strength successfully over the course of your high school career is what admissions will look for. The more selective and academically challenging a college is, the more picky they will be on your grades.

Again, context matters, so if your school only offered a few amount of APs, it is helpful to let colleges know that, if you stayed after school and did more work, projects and research, write that in your application. Help them understand what you had access to, what you took advantage of and what your academic strengths are.

The qualitative pieces to your application (essay, letter of recommendation, activities + awards) are another major piece that is helpful in an admission decision. You don’t have to be a superhero, but it is your job to drive the narrative on your college application and present yourself in the best light.

As you list your activities, write the title and role, but also what you DID in each activity and what your interaction and impact was.

An activity can be any committed responsibility that you have spent a significant amount of time on outside of the classroom. This can also be a family obligation, work, learning a new skill on your own, etc.

Your essays should be about YOU and help admissions understand your strengths, interests, your growth and gain an insight into you. If you’re writing an essay and it feels forced, or you read it and you learn more about a story and not about yourself, start over.

Remember that a college will have your grades and your activities and awards so when you choose to write an essay do not just relist what’s already there!

If you’re interested in a specific field or major, think of ways you can show your interest and academic strength within that field. A helpful tool is to go to ONET and search a career and look at the knowledge and skills section to get some verbiage and some ideas on what to write about.

When you request a letter of recommendation from a teacher, it doesn’t necessarily need to be from a teacher you did well with. A teacher letter of recommendation is to help a college understand you within the classroom, how you handle challenges, how you think critically, how you interact with others, tackle projects, etc.

Get to know you admission counselor and see if there are other opportunities to show demonstrated interest, interview or just gain some insight as to how to gain a better chance of admission. Check with your counselor or search the college’s website. If you have an opportunity to have someone advocating for you and giving you insider tips…it is worth it!

The SAT and ACT may seem like such a big component to not have. In reality, it is a small academic metric on your application. And without it, well, it’s OKAY, because in a holistic college review, there are SO many other components that can hold weight in an admissions decision.

So create a schedule, give yourself a nice space to work, and get started on those applications.

Published by Casey Barneson

Author of The College Wellness Guide. Beverly Hills High School College Counselor.

One thought on “No test scores? What will matter on your college app this year

  1. Great article Casey! I like what you said about looking for progression and growth throughout high school. I also like what you said about requesting LOR’s from teachers that you didn’t necessarily do well with. The transcript will show which classes you did well in, but you highlighted the things students should be looking for in a recommendation and thus a recommender.

    Keep the great content coming!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: