The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted every aspect of our lives, including US university admissions policies and student life. In the last few months, hundreds of American and Canadian universities have revised their requirements for the SAT and ACT making these exams optional for the upcoming admissions cycle. In the past, only a small portion of American universities allowed students to apply without submitting standardised tests yet, like falling dominoes, one university after another eliminated the requirement for these critical components of the application process. Students celebrated, but must take pause and consider what test-optional policies really mean and how the absence of submitting test scores will affect their admissibility, particularly to top universities.

When the pandemic struck, several SAT and ACT exams were cancelled in the UAE and abroad, and testing centres closed. Students who had already prepared to take the June tests could no longer sit for them, and frustration grew with the uncertainty as to when the next standardised tests would be administered. Universities were quick to adjust admissions policies, to ensure access to students that were adversely affected by these changes, making sure that students that could not take these exams would not be excluded from applying to their institutions.

As this year’s college application begins, the big question for most students is how to interpret all these sudden and extraordinary changes. Will the absence of SAT or ACT scores diminish chances of admission? Will the presence of SAT or ACT scores boost those chances? Are the new policies applicable for international students too?

It is critical to understand the difference between test-optional and test-blind admissions policies. Most American universities in the US, including high-flyers like Harvard and Stanford, have adopted a test-optional policy.

For international students, it is especially important to keep in mind that SAT and ACT scores are crucial indicators of academic aptitude for the American admissions system, writes Peter Davos, CEO of Hale Education Group

What does this mean? Test-optional means that the university will review the scores if submitted – and they will make a difference. If a student takes the SAT or ACT exam and submits these scores, they will be reviewed together with other application materials, including essays, letters of recommendation, and school grades.

On the one hand, outstanding SAT or ACT scores will strengthen a student’s application in the same manner that good essays or good grades will do.

On the other hand, absence of scores, while it may not diminish chances of admission, will certainly not strengthen the applicant’s profile – particularly if a student is applying from a city/country where there are ample opportunities to sit for these exams.

However, only a handful of US universities, for instance Hampshire College and Caltech, have adopted test-blind policy. What this means is that SAT and ACT scores will not be considered even if a student takes the exam and submits them. The universities that have adopted this policy will only consider a student’s school grades, essays, recommendation letters, and extracurricular activities.

For international students, it is especially important to keep in mind that SAT and ACT scores are crucial indicators of academic aptitude for the American admissions system. While the admissions committee makes every effort to understand every student’s particular educational background, an outstanding SAT or ACT score can serve as a strong reinforcement of the student’s abilities.

Additionally, it’s critical to keep in mind that colleges have adopted the test-optional policy primarily for the benefit of students who have absolutely no means to register, study for, and take the SAT or ACT. 

Students who have the means – and that means nearly every student in the UAE – should therefore plan to take and submit standardised test scores and not view the new policies as a hall pass excusing them from this expectation which is no longer a requirement.

US universities have been clear in their external communication that test scores will continue to matter. Cornell, an Ivy League University, has stated emphatically: Cornell overall has not planned to adopt a test-optional admission policy permanently.

This is a golden opportunity for UAE students who have worked hard to prepare for the SAT/ACT to set themselves apart in the eyes of admissions officers from those who have not. For the latter, there is still ample time and opportunity to prepare and score well on the exams.

– Elijah Koome and Peter Davos

SAT/ACT prep classes

• If you want to prepare but don’t know where to start, Hale offers test prep classes for both the SAT and ACT. Our classes are designed to be comprehensive, structured and motivational and are sure to help you succeed in your upcoming exams.

• Upcoming SAT Test Dates: August 29, September 26, October 3, November 7 and December 5. Any test taken during these dates is viable for submission in this application cycle.

• Upcoming ACT Test Dates: September 12 and 13, September 19, October 10, October 17, October 24 and 25, and December 12.

Hale is approved by the KHDA for Test Prep Services & University Admissions Counselling |

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