Explore Our 2024 Guide to Gap Year Programs!

    Is the SAT Making a Comeback? Why Top Schools are Rolling Back their Test-Optional Policies

    Posted by Stella Tannenbaum

    Widespread impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t spare the college admissions process. Students who had not yet taken the SAT or had hoped to retake it for a better score were left scrambling. Some questioned whether it was safe to sit indoors for the duration of the exam in a room alongside other students. Others lacked easy access to an SAT testing site.

    So, when the bulk of colleges and universities nationwide dropped the SAT as a requirement, many students breathed a collective sigh of relief.

    Now, four years after the onset of the pandemic, several highly selective institutions have reversed course. Schools like Dartmouth, Harvard, and Yale have reintroduced standardized tests as an admission requirement.

    But why are the SATs making a comeback? And what can students do to prepare for test-mandatory admissions processes? To understand the role of the SAT in college admissions, it’s important to understand the research about its efficacy as a predictor of college success. Here’s everything you need to know to navigate ever-changing college admissions requirements.

    About the SAT

    The SAT has been used in different forms for nearly a century, and criticism of it didn't begin with the pandemic. Many are skeptical of its usefulness, arguing it only measures students’ test-taking ability rather than their intelligence.

    Others have criticized the test, saying that it perpetuates racial and socioeconomic gaps in college admissions. Research has revealed that students from affluent backgrounds perform better on the test than students who may fall lower on the socioeconomic ladder. Some students face other barriers to taking the test itself, like the cost of the test and transportation to and from test centers.

    As a result of systemic factors like the effects of redlining and exclusionary education policy, Asian and white students consistently outperform Black and Latino students, especially on the test’s mathematics portion.

    SAT predictions fall short

    But making the switch to test-optional during the pandemic revealed that the move may not produce the equitable results that SAT critics had hoped. Brown, Dartmouth, and Yale found their applicant pools actually became less diverse as a result of the test-optional policy.

    Fewer low-income students and students of color applied to these schools, thinking their scores weren’t  sufficient—even if they had achieved a good score. Of those who did apply, admissions officers expressed concern that some students chose not submit SAT scores that may have elevated their application.

    The SAT enables admissions offices to identify high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds. For students graduating from schools lacking the Advanced Placement or extracurricular offerings available in more affluent school districts, a high SAT score can help bridge the gap.

    Regarding the test’s use as a predictor of academic success in college, new research highlights SATs may be more useful than previously thought.

    A study conducted by Opportunity Insights, an economic opportunity research group based at Harvard, revealed that higher SAT/ACT scores are associated with higher GPAs at Ivy League and similar schools. In fact, when controlled for race, gender, income and first-generation or legacy status, higher SAT/ACT scores correlate more strongly with higher college GPAs than high school GPAs.

    The study also revealed that students from high-income and low-income backgrounds who receive similar SAT scores earn similar grades in college.

    Reinstating the SAT

    While many colleges and universities are remaining test optional — at least for now — several highly selective institutions are reinstating their pre-pandemic requirement that applicants submit standardized test scores.

    Massachusetts Institute of Technology reinstated its SAT/ACT requirement in 2022 because SAT scores — particularly the mathematics section — have proven to be a strong indicator of applicants’ preparedness for success at MIT.

    Yale University will begin requiring standardized test scores again for fall 2025 admission—with a few adjustments. Yale has adopted a “test-flexible” policy: Rather than strictly requiring the SAT or ACT, applicants can choose to submit Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) exam scores instead. Applicants opting to submit AP or IB scores instead of the SAT or ACT must submit all scores they have received by the time they submit their application.

    Harvard University recently announced that it will require the SAT or ACT for its upcoming admissions cycle. This announcement is a change in direction, as Harvard was previously expected to remain test-optional through the Class of 2030.

    Preparing for a test-mandatory admissions cycle

    Taking the SAT or ACT can be daunting to even the most adept test-taker, but with increasing numbers of competitive colleges requiring students to submit scores, it’s important to give it your best effort. Here are a few tips to help prepare:

    Check each school’s policy.

    While some schools require the SAT/ACT, others will remain test-optional for now. Schools in the University of California system do not consider test scores, and Columbia University’s test-optional policy has no end date.

    Study smarter.

    If you’re looking for an SAT/ACT tutor or test prep resources, here’s a tool to help you get started. Not all tutors have the same approach, so find an SAT tutor who would be the best fit for you. Or study with other test-takers to help each other out.

    Scores may be mandatory, but they aren’t everything.

    Most universities use a holistic admissions process, considering the applicant’s academic, extracurricular, personal, creative, and other achievements when deciding whom to accept — not just test scores.

    Sign up for Free Tips and Guides direct to Your Inbox
    Stella Tannenbaum

    Stella Tannenbaum

    Stella Tannenbaum is a senior at Boston University studying journalism and political science. She has previously worked as an intern at the National Literacy Trust in London and the Scranton Times-Tribune in Scranton, PA. She has also covered the Massachusetts legislature for several publications across the state through the BU Statehouse Program.