Advice From the Experts

By Jeff Nazzaro

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for social distancing at American universities has accelerated a trend away from using standardized tests in college admissions. Analogously, you might say that SAT scores are to getting into college what working in a cubicle is to advancing your career—not always necessary these days. In fact, according to US News and World Report, while more than a thousand American universities made standardized tests optional as of Fall 2019; for Fall 2022, that number is up by more than 50 percent.

In California, the UC system has indicated it will no longer consider SAT or ACT scores as part of the admissions process or when doling out scholarships, while the CSU system has suspended their use of the tests for admissions through 2022.

“The UC system will no longer consider SAT or ACT scores…”

Elite private institutions in the state have responded to the challenges, as well. Stanford, emphasizing a holistic approach to admissions, has made standardized tests at least temporarily optional, insisting those who choose not to submit SAT or ACT scores will not be at a disadvantage, and Caltech has put a moratorium on admissions tests through the Fall 2023 semester.

Meanwhile, the in-the-field experts teaching in UCR University Extension’s College Admissions Counseling Professional Certificate program have stayed a step ahead of these still unfolding developments.

Heather Churney is a counselor at ASU Preparatory Academy in Arizona, a digital school that serves students all over the state--each with unique circumstances. She teaches The College Counseling Process, the lead course in UCR University Extension’s Professional Certificate program, for which she has integrated what she calls “COVID changes” into her lessons and discussion boards.

Instructor Heather Churney "integrated ‘COVID changes’ into her lessons…"

“It is really important for our students to understand how the landscape has changed and is changing,” said Heather, who noted that in addition to dramatically altered testing requirements, student transcripts now look different. “Each state, school, and district did what they wanted in 2020 and 2021, so in reviewing student transcripts, they look anything but traditional.”

For instance, Heather said, many of these student transcripts show whole semesters of courses taken pass/fail instead of for letter grades; some reveal otherwise straight A students whose grades suddenly tanked.

“Students were dealing with illness and housing uncertainty, financial uncertainty, caring for siblings; some got jobs during online learning to help their families. There is so much the transcript does not show,” Heather said. “Most colleges are allowing for explanations, and I have been assisting students with that.”

UCR University Extension instructor Tim Roty, who has worked as a counselor at private and public high schools over the past 16 years, believes the changes to college admissions are here to stay.

Veteran instructor Tim Roty "believes the changes to admissions are here to stay.”

“This new way of thinking is the logical step in removing a barrier in college admissions that will lead to major changes in the application process,” Tim said. “My prediction is that colleges will be test-optional and continue with a more holistic approach that doesn’t take test scores into account as much as they have in the past. I am excited to see colleges value a student’s life experience, rigor, and grades more than a three-hour test on a Saturday.”

Tim advises seniors applying to colleges to compile a list of appropriate schools, focusing on personal fit over selectivity and then strategizing about early action based on those schools. He says it’s important to take advantage of virtual visits to prospective universities and, especially with testing optional or not required, to give serious attention to application essays and short answer sections.

In addition to teaching in UCR University Extension’s program, Christine Di Benedetto is a high school counselor in the public sector where she develops four- and six-year plans for middle- and high-school students. She recognizes the impact the pandemic has had on admissions and how it has complicated an already difficult process for students.

Instructor Christine Di Benedetto "recognizes how the pandemic has complicated an already difficult process…”

“More and more colleges are choosing test-optional, which is providing greater opportunity for some students, especially when social justice demands are also pushing for systemic change across higher education,” Christine said. “With that said, the message is still clear that if you have the same qualifications as another student, then test scores can be the tie breaker for admission.”

Heather likens “test-optional” to the UC system making a third year of a foreign language in high school optional. “Optional means do it,” she said. “My advice to students: If you are able to take it, take it!”