How I work with college applicants

Every year, I look forward to working with students on all aspects of the important, complicated, and challenging process of applying to colleges. I strive to help students represent themselves honestly and authentically in their college applications, while preparing themselves for college (and life after college) by learning to manage the complexities of the application process and by learning more about what college will really be like. 

The essays are the most difficult and time-consuming element of college applications—and coaching students on application essays is a particular specialty of mine. In each essay, you should share something meaningful about yourself that colleges will not learn from other components of your application, and you should speak in your authentic voice. Too often, students obsess about what they think colleges “want to see,” and they therefore mistakenly focus on trying to “impress” colleges instead of shining a light on key aspects of who they are. Some students have very little experience with narrative and descriptive writing, or with any form of personal essay writing. Many students find it very hard to write about themselves, worrying that they are either bragging or inappropriately revealing vulnerabilities and flaws.

I remember well how frustrated and angst-ridden I was when I tried to write my college-application essays. I was generally a strong writer, but those writing skills didn’t seem to help me much as I floundered about, trying to find the right topic and then trying to write effectively about that topic. Nothing felt right. I’d write a few sentences on a piece of paper, read what I’d written, frown and sigh, crumple the paper into a ball, and throw it into the wastebasket. I repeated this sequence more times than I could count until I finally settled on something a week or two before my early application was due. I was incredibly lucky that Harvard admitted me early and that my college counselor then grudgingly allowed me to apply to only one additional college, thereby keeping my essay-writing misery to a minimum. (In case you’re wondering, that additional college was Yale. Over winter break, I wrote a really terrible essay for Yale, in which I attempted to explain why I loved playing the violin, and Yale rejected me a few months later.)

So I can relate to many of the difficulties that my students face when they are writing their college-app essays. When I coach a student on the main Common App essay, I guide the student through the following phases: 

  • Brainstorming, both in writing and in conversation during sessions (I’ve developed my own extensive set of questions to facilitate this process)
  • Identifying the few most promising topics that emerge from the brainstorming process
  • Free-writing about each of those topics
  • Deciding which topic will work best (which topic will be most compelling)
  • Generating an initial (very rough) draft
  • Revising the draft multiple times and shortening the draft to fit within the word limit

I coach the student through each of the steps above, challenging him/her/them to get to the true “so what” of the chosen topic, during weekly or twice-weekly Skype sessions; sometimes I also leave written feedback in the student’s Google Docs between sessions. I find that a large part of my job as a college-admissions coach is helping students who feel “stuck” get themselves back on track, with a set of clear, actionable, manageable next steps and reassurance that they’re heading in the right direction. Thus, meeting with me at least once a week over the summer before senior year (so that the student doesn’t remain “stuck” for too long) is advisable.

The process for developing and writing supplemental or non-Common App essays (most applicants will end up needing to write anywhere from 15 to 25 of these additional essays) is more straightforward, since many of these essays ask students to explain what they want to study in college and why, or to explain why they want to attend a particular college. However, some supplemental essay prompts require students to write highly personal essays (e.g., UVA’s question asking you to describe one of your “quirks” and why it is part of who you are); for such prompts, students may need to go through a scaled-down version of the steps listed above.


Here’s how one of my recent applicants described the process of working with me:

Sara Su carefully read through every draft of my Common App essay and supplemental essays and offered her feedback on the overall ideas, grammar, and word choice of each essay. However, what I believe helped my essays truly be as impactful as they could be was Sara Su’s insightful questions throughout every step of the process—from brainstorming to the final draft—that implored me to think deeply about my upbringing, experiences, and opinions. 

She started by having me brainstorm answers to personal questions (ex: what surprises people about you?), and after talking through my answers with her, I was able to get a sense of what was uniquely me and should be included in my main essay. By having me approach the essay as a self-reflection process, she enabled me to be as vulnerable and honest as I could be when writing. Additionally, Sara Su’s brainstorming process allowed me to get a clearer sense of who I am as a person and student, as well as what I am looking for in a college, which later helped me construct my college list and write my supplemental essays. 

For my Common App essay and supplementals, Sara Su was able to read drafts through the lens of both an experienced admission coach and someone who knows my goals, work habits, personality, and true desires for the college experience (from brainstorming for the Common App essay and further conversations during sessions). Combining the two, she offered suggestions that would make my writing more effective (with things like word choice, topic choice) while still being genuine to who I am. Finally, Sara Su supported me through all the worries, anxiety, and questioning that the college process tends to bring out, helping me find confidence not only as an applicant, but as someone who is transitioning to the next stage in her life.


It means a great deal to me to have the opportunity to work with young people as they embark on the college-application journey and prepare for the next chapter in their lives. I deeply value the trust that my college applicants have in me, and I am so proud of them for reflecting deeply and honestly and working hard throughout the application process, a process that can catalyze so much learning and growth if approached the right way.

Developing a summer work plan for college applications

Dear Class of 2023:

I know you are super busy, in the throes of the spring term of junior year. But as you continue to plan your summer, it’s time for you to develop a summer work plan for your college applications. 

By now, you probably have at least a rough idea of your summer plans, which may include a job or internship, volunteer work, academic programs, sports or music camps, travel, and time off (reserving some time to do nothing, decompress, and recharge your batteries is important!). You also know (or will very soon know) exactly when your summer break will begin and end.

Once you have a sense of how busy you will be during each week of your summer vacation, you should sketch out a detailed (week by week) summer work plan for your college application process, with the intention of completing as much work as possible before the start of your senior year. I recommend writing out your work plan in a Google Doc, with specific blocks of time designated each week for college-app work. (You can and should update the plan as you go along, if circumstances change.)

In general, you should plan to spend at least 5-10 hours a week this summer on college-related work, and perhaps 10-15 hours a week (especially if there are any weeks during the summer when you will be traveling or immersed in a program and therefore unable to work on college apps). Each week, you should spread your college-app work out over multiple days, devoting some time to this work 3-6 days per week. (Each week, you should seriously consider taking at least one day off from all work/commitments—have a “free day” to do nothing, hang out with friends, etc.)

Whenever you sit down to work on college-app tasks, make sure to “work smart.” As with all the work you do (for school, extracurriculars, etc.), try to do the most intellectually demanding tasks when you have excellent mental focus and energy, and save the “busy work” or less demanding work for those times when you are tired or less able to concentrate deeply. Luckily, college-app work includes a wide variety of tasks, including plenty of “housekeeping” and organizational to-do items, so you can choose freely from this diverse buffet of options each time you sit down to do some work. Brainstorming, writing, and revising essays require excellent concentration and mental energy, while doing college research, tweaking your organizational system, clicking on links in emails from colleges, and filling out basic portions of the Common App will feel more doable when you are tired or a bit distracted. It is hard to predict in advance how you will feel on a given day, so don’t try to designate specific blocks of time for essay-writing, for example. Just go with the flow. If you have reserved enough blocks of time each week for college-app work, you will find enough opportunities to complete even the most challenging tasks.

Do not overload yourself this summer. During the school year, your top priorities should be maintaining your physical and mental health (including by getting enough sleep) and doing the best you can in your school courses while also enjoying extracurriculars that are genuinely meaningful, challenging (providing opportunities for growth), and rewarding. During the summer, you should continue to prioritize your health (including by getting enough sleep) while meaningfully engaging in jobs, programs, or activities that will edify you or enrich your life in some way (this includes everything from retail/food-service jobs to structured college courses). But don’t do too much. If you overstuff your summer schedule, you will pay a price for it this fall, when you’ll find yourself overwhelmed with tons of college-app work alongside major amounts of schoolwork and extracurricular commitments, and unable to truly do your best work in any of these areas.


Here are the main aspects of the summer college-app work you will need to do, with my recommended timing. (Note: the list below does not include every single college-admissions-related task you will have on your plate this summer, but it does include the most significant of those tasks.)

From the start of your summer break until July 31:

  • In June, if you have not already done so, reach out to the teachers whom you plan to ask to write recommendations for you
  • In June, set up an effective “productivity system” for the extremely complicated process of applying to colleges: a Google Drive folder with subfolders that contain the various documents relevant to your college-app work (e.g., notes on colleges and college visits, essay brainstorming, essay drafts, transcripts, activities list, awards list, a list of questions for your school college counselor), in addition to a “bulletproof” reminder/calendar system so you won’t miss any deadlines
    • Consider using an app like Todoist to keep track of to-do items and deadlines (but a well-organized and frequently updated Google Doc can work just fine, too)
  • Explore in detail the course offerings in virtually all departments of at least one college to determine the fields that you might want to major or minor in (I advise my students to do this in a particular way, so that the exercise yields maximum insight into potential fields of study)
    • Stress-test your pre-existing assumptions and plans, which you most likely formed without reference to actual course descriptions, major/minor requirements, etc.
    • Every year, at least a few of my students discover that they no longer want to major in the field they had thought they wanted to major in
    • Every student who fully explores college course offerings is surprised and excited to discover courses and entire fields of study that the student didn’t know existed—it’s wonderful to make these discoveries!
    • Making evidence-based, fully informed decisions about potential majors and minors (and about other consequential matters, such as which colleges to apply to) is critically important
    • Many students end up majoring in something other than the major they listed on college apps, and that’s fine—the intended/potential majors you list on applications are the ones that most interest you at that particular point in time
  • If possible, at some point this summer, you should create a draft four-year course of study so that you can see what a college academic program is really like
    • It’s very different from high-school academics—every year, students tell me that they’d thought they understood college academics, but after completing their draft four-year course plan, they realized that they’d truly had no clue how college courses/academics work
    • Your planned major, minor, and electives will most likely change between this summer and when you start college (and might even change halfway through college), but it’s still valuable to map out what a college academic program might look like
    • This is a difficult, time-consuming task, for which you will likely need the help of parents or friends/relatives in college, but it is incredibly worthwhile
  • Try to complete most of your college research, including in-person/virtual tours and information sessions, conversations with current students and recent graduates, reading about certain colleges in the Fiske Guide and similar books, and extensive web research
  • Continue to refine your preliminary list of colleges; consider including both large universities and small colleges
    • In particular, ensure that you have enough “likely” and “target” schools on your list, and not too many “unlikely” (aka “reach”, <20% admit rate) schools
    • The goal is to create a list that consists entirely of schools that you would genuinely be happy to attend (because what each school offers does at least a reasonably good job of meeting your needs), with a range of selectivity levels
  • Draft your Common App activities and awards lists
    • How you describe each activity is crucially important; this is a time-consuming and painstaking component of your application work, if done right
  • Brainstorm potential topics for your main Common App essay and do some free-writing on the most promising topics to determine which topic to select
    • Topic selection is absolutely critical for the main Common App essay in particular. Over the years, I’ve developed a particular method for brainstorming essay topics and helping students identify the topic(s) that will serve them best; it’s important for the Common App essay to provide insights not afforded by the other components of a student’s application. I also have specific recommendations regarding the process of developing and writing college-app essays, recommendations designed to help students write as freely and completely as possible in the early stages before tightening the focus and the writing. 
  • Develop a rough draft of your main Common App essay, which will eventually be capped at 650 words
    • For most students, the entire essay development process will take quite a bit of time; you will need to do multiple rounds of work on the main Common App essay 
    • As one of my past college applicants noted, “I was surprised by how emotionally draining it was to do the introspection required while writing/brainstorming college essays.”
  • If appropriate, draft the optional Covid-19 essay (up to 250 words) for the Common App
  • If appropriate, draft the content you would like to include in the Common App’s optional Additional Information section/essay (up to 650 words)
  • Revise your draft Common App essay(s)—the required main essay and the optional additional essays, if applicable—multiple times
    • Most students end up revising their main Common App essay 5-10 times; it may well be the most thoughtful and labor-intensive piece of writing you’ve ever worked on
  • Draft a prototype “academic interest” supplemental essay explaining what you want to study in college (major, minor, electives) and why
  • Draft a prototype “why College X” supplemental essay for a college on your list that you know asks for this essay every year
  • Start gathering the 2022-23 supplemental essay prompts for the colleges on your list that have already released those prompts (most colleges release them around August 1)
  • Find the application forms and essay prompts for colleges on your list that do not use the Common App, and start working on those forms and essays
  • Set up your Common App login (but wait until the new application is released on August 1 to start filling out the application)
  • Stay in communication with your school’s college counselor as needed (you will most likely have some questions for the counselor about, for example, which AP scores to report or how to list certain courses)
  • If you are planning to retake the SAT or ACT sometime between July and December, do appropriate prep work at whatever point during the summer makes sense, given your planned retake date and the amount of score improvement you are aiming for

From August 1 until the start of senior year (which for some students is as early as mid- to late August):

  • Complete any additional college research that you need to do, including attending virtual or in-person tours and information sessions (remember: it’s best to visit colleges only when classes are in session)
  • Further refine your college list, if needed
  • Thoughtfully consider your early-action and early-decision options and make preliminary decisions regarding where you want to apply early (you will submit those applications in late October)
  • Find the application forms and essay prompts for any colleges on your list that do not use the Common App (if those forms and prompts were not available before August 1), and start working on those forms and essays
  • Finish gathering the 2022-23 supplemental essay prompts for the colleges on your list that have released those prompts; some colleges will also have short-response questions
  • Organize all supplemental and non-Common App essay prompts in a well-designed table or spreadsheet so that (a) you can take advantage of synergies among similar essay prompts (recycle content, if appropriate) and (b) you won’t lose track of any prompts and have to write a last-minute essay 
  • Draft all supplemental and non-Common App essays, or as many as you are able to draft before school starts
    • You will most likely need to write at least 10-15 of these extra essays, and possibly as many as 25+
    • For example, last year, a student applying to 17 colleges had to write 30 supplemental/non-Common App essays (each ranging from 100 to 650 words) and 8 short responses (<100 words)
  • Fill out the Common App (demographic information, senior-year course listings, test scores, activities list, awards list, college-level courses taken for credit, essays, Additional Information, etc.)
    • Some colleges also require you (in their supplements) to list all your courses and grades from 9th grade onward (an extremely time-consuming task)
  • If you are planning to retake the SAT or ACT sometime between August and December, do appropriate prep work
  • Prepare for college-admissions interviews (this can be done in the fall, once you know which of the colleges you’re applying to will offer interviews—most likely only a few colleges will offer you the opportunity to be interviewed)
    • Essay-writing and college research naturally help you prepare for interviews, but some additional interview-specific preparation can be valuable

As you devise your summer (and fall) work plan for college applications (and test prep, if needed), keep the following in mind:

1. Everything will take longer (possibly much longer) than you think it will. (This is generally true of all our efforts in all spheres of life.) Many college-app tasks are also more difficult or complicated than you originally thought they’d be.

2. Try to front-load your college-app work; do as much of it as early in the summer as you can. The earlier you start, the sooner you will realize whether you need to tweak your summer work plan to achieve your goals. Also, the earlier you start, the more time you will have to reflect deeply and honestly on who you are, what matters to you, what you want from your college education, and other foundational questions that underlie the formation of your college list (and application strategy) and the drafting of your application essays. Try to allocate extra-large amounts of time to college-app work in the early weeks of the summer (June and early July).

3. The more college-app work you can get done before senior year starts, the better. Every fall, seniors tell me that the fall of senior year is even more intense, stressful, and overwhelming than the spring of junior year. Under those conditions, you may not be able to do your best work on your remaining application components, including essays.

4. Schedule frequent (shorter) coaching sessions. If you are working with me this summer, I recommend scheduling shorter, more frequent sessions (e.g., 30-45 minutes twice a week rather than 60-90 minutes once a week) so that you can keep up the momentum and work as steadily as possible; I can help you get “unstuck” each time you get stuck. (Too often, students do little to no college-app work for 5-6 days and then do three hours of work in a single sitting right before we meet. That approach is not a recipe for doing your best work.)

5. Do extra work during certain weeks. If you will be unable to do much college-app work during certain weeks this summer (e.g., because you will be doing a program abroad for six weeks), you should plan to do extra college-app work both before and after those weeks. 


In sum, rising seniors should work steadily on their college applications throughout the summer in order to minimize workload and stress during the fall term of senior year. As one of my recent college applicants (an exceptionally bright and high-achieving student who is also an outstanding writer) commented, “I didn’t do much/any college work over Thanksgiving break or the weekends during the fall term of senior year because I was so burnt out from my course load that I needed time to mentally do nothing. So it’s really great if you’re able to get ahead on college essays over the summer before school.”

Virtually all of the college applicants I’ve worked with would agree with what one applicant pointed out: “College applications can be a very fulfilling process if done well. You can really learn a lot about yourself, your values, your goals, etc., through your essays and reflections.”

In today’s absurdly competitive college-admissions landscape, there are no assurances that even the most outstanding students will get into their top-choice schools. My goal is to help students achieve the peace of mind that comes from knowing that they’ve done the best they can on their applications—which is the only peace of mind to be found anywhere in the college-application process. And the key to doing your best on your college applications is starting early this summer and working steadily throughout the summer.

As one student put it, “I was surprised how time intensive applications are! However, remember that the time and energy you invest in the process will give you peace of mind when you’re waiting for decisions. Make every application the best you can.

About the new digital SAT

Today, the College Board announced that it will replace the current SAT and PSATs with a new digital, adaptive version of these tests in 2023 and 2024. Current high-school freshmen will be the first to take the new digital tests. (In my next blog post, I will share my initial thoughts on the new digital test and my recommendations for current 8th and 9th graders.)

Here’s what we know and don’t know about the new test (based on the College Board’s FAQs):

Length and content

What we know:

  • The new test will be “around two hours” long (an hour shorter than the current test), with two sections (reading and writing, and math) and a break between the two sections.
    • Students in a given testing room will not necessarily take their breaks at the same time; the test length may vary from student to student, depending on various factors.
  • The College Board is “making changes to test content to better fit digital delivery.”
  • Questions on both sections “will be more direct, and closely focused on assessing what students need to know to succeed in college and career.” 
  • It appears that Reading and Writing will be the first section of the test, followed by Math.
  • Reading and Writing:
    • “Instead of a few long reading passages with multiple questions per passage, students will see many shorter texts, each tied to just one question.”
    • Some passages may be accompanied by a table or graph.
    • All questions will be multiple-choice, with four answer options per question. 
  • Math:
    • “[Q]uestions in context (word problems) will be more concise than those on the current test.”
    • There will be both multiple-choice questions and grid-ins (student-produced response questions), as there currently are. Negative values will now be permissible answers for the grid-ins.
    • Students will be allowed to use a calculator throughout the math section, and the usual math formulas will be provided (as they currently are on the first page of each math section).

What we don’t know:

  • How long will each reading passage be? What will the most difficult reading passages look like—will they resemble the current toughest passages?
  • Will the format and content of the writing portion of the verbal section change?
  • How will the content and question types in the math section change?
  • Exactly how long will each section be?
  • How long will the break be? (From the College Board’s PowerPoint slideshow, it seems likely to be 10 minutes long.)

Computer-based format

What we know:

  • The new test will be administered exclusively via computers at schools or at other testing centers.
  • Students will take the test on a laptop or tablet, using a custom-built digital exam application that they’ll download in advance of test day if they are using their own device
  • “If a student doesn’t have a device, they can request to borrow one from College Board, and we’ll provide one to use on test day.”
  • The digital testing application will provide students with these test tools:
    • A way to highlight “question content” and annotate (but what about annotating or highlighting passages or marking up graphs or diagrams?)
    • “A way to flag questions in order to come back to them later”
    • “A countdown clock, which students can choose to show or hide at the top of their testing screen, that will alert them when they’re running out of time”
    • “A built-in graphing calculator students can use on the entire math section (or they can bring their own calculator)”
    • “A reference sheet, for each math question, consisting of common formulas” (note: this is already provided on the first page of both current SAT math sections)
  • “We’ve built the exam application to withstand internet outages. If the internet disconnects during testing, students will still be able to progress through the test with no disruption. If a student’s computer runs out of battery, they can simply plug in, restart their device, and pick up where they left off—all their work will be saved, and they won’t lose testing time.” 
  • “We’ll have dedicated customer service resources ready to troubleshoot issues on test day for students and test centers. We’re also introducing the role of technology coordinator for each test center to provide additional support.”

What we don’t know:

  • Will students be able to highlight or annotate in reading passages or writing texts?
  • Will students be able to label and otherwise mark up diagrams and graphs?
  • Will every student be seated within a few feet of an electrical outlet (so that the student can easily plug in a laptop/tablet adapter)?
  • Will students with superior devices (e.g., faster processors, higher-resolution screens) have a smoother (and more successful) test-taking experience than students with inferior devices?
  • How much scratch paper will students be provided? Will students be given only one sheet at a time (as is the case with, for example, the computer-based ISEE and SSAT)?

Adaptive testing (each student will take a unique test)

From the College Board:
“The digital test will be adaptive, so it can continue to measure the same core reading, writing, and math knowledge and skills much more efficiently, shortening the overall length of the test while also allowing students more time per question.

“This means that for the digital SAT Suite, each test section (Reading and Writing, Math) is divided into two parts called modules. Students answer a set of questions in the first module before moving on to the next. The questions that students are given in the second module depend on how they performed on the first module.”

In other words, students who answer most or all of the questions in the first module correctly will be given more difficult questions in the second module. Students who do not perform as well in the first module will be given easier questions in the second module.

Because the test is adaptive, no two students will take exactly the same test.

Scoring

  • “The SAT will still be scored on a 1600 scale, and educators and students can continue to monitor growth across the suite over time. And scores on the SAT will mean the same thing, so a score of 1050 on the digital SAT corresponds to a score of 1050 on the paper and pencil SAT.”
  • Score reports will be available “in days” rather than weeks (currently, scores are released about two weeks after most test dates)
  • “We’ve consulted with groups of higher ed enrollment leaders throughout 2021 to get their insights and feedback on the development of the digital SAT, and they’ve indicated they’ll continue to use SAT scores from the digital test as they do now, as one part of their holistic admissions process. We’ll continue to listen and engage with our members as we move toward launch in 2023.” By the summer of 2022, the College Board will have the results of a “validity study examining digital SAT relationships with other educational measures,” and by the fall of 2023, the College Board will have the results of a “preliminary predictive validity study examining college outcomes.”

Timeline 

  • Fall 2022: International students can register for the first administration of the new SAT in March 2023.
  • Fall 2022: Digital practice material, as well as full-length practice tests within the exam application, will be posted on the College Board website.
  • Fall 2023 onward: US students will take the new digital version of the PSAT/NMSQT and PSAT 8/9. Presumably US students will be able to register in the fall of 2023 for the first domestic administration of the new SAT in March 2024.
  • December 2023: Most likely, the last paper-based SAT will be administered on the first Saturday in December 2023.
  • March 2024: the new SAT will be administered for the first time in the US. Students who are in 9th grade now (i.e., students in the high-school class of 2025) will be the first cohort to take the new SAT.
  • Spring 2024 (March/April): US students will take the new digital version of the PSAT 10. Many high schools administer this test to sophomores. School Day administrations of the SAT will also use the new digital test.

The 2020 SAT (and ACT): next steps for juniors and sophomores

In light of today’s College Board announcements, I am recommending the following:

For juniors who have not yet taken their first SAT:

  • Register for the August AND September SAT as soon as you are allowed to register in May.  The College Board is giving you early access to the registration process; take advantage of that and sign up for both tests, just in case.  (What if you sign up only for August, and then the August SAT is canceled while the September and October SATs are “sold out”?)
  • Consider also registering for the October SAT, just in case. It’s important to have as many options as possible during this time of uncertainty.  (What if the August and September tests are canceled? I expect the August, September, and October test dates to “sell out” faster than a Taylor Swift concert, and I also expect the November and December test dates to “sell out” well in advance of their registration deadlines.)  Moreover, you may wish to use the October SAT as a retake opportunity that will yield scores in time to be submitted with early applications to colleges (most early applications have a November 1 deadline).  The November and December SATs will yield scores that you can use in regular-action applications due January 1, 2021.
  • Consider registering now for the July 18th ACT, and later on for the September 12th ACT, to keep your options open and to give yourself some additional test-taking practice.  In my experience, the SAT is a better showcase of most students’ skills than the ACT, but the two tests are similar enough that students preparing for the SAT will not need too much additional ACT-specific preparation to feel reasonably ready for the ACT.
  • Forget about SAT Subject Tests.  Focus your energies on scoring well on the SAT and on doing your best work on college applications, including essays, activities lists, awards lists, and research on specific colleges, as well as communication with your college counselors, teachers who are writing your recommendations, and admissions officers at colleges (to the extent needed).

For juniors who have taken the SAT at least once already but are seeking an opportunity to score higher:

  • First, ask yourself whether you really need to retake the test.  One of my juniors scored a 1520 last fall; she tells me she wants to retake it so that she can (perhaps) score above 1550.  I explained to her that a small score increase at that stratospheric level will not make the difference between getting into a certain college and not getting into that college.  I have other juniors whose initial scores were in the 1400-1450 range; if they strongly desire a retake opportunity, it’s not unreasonable for them to pursue such an opportunity.  Re-testers should either (a) invest a lot of time in test prep in the 4-6 weeks before a retake date or (b) invest hardly any time, instead just taking one or two complete practice tests in the 1-2 weeks before a retake date.  Keep in mind that the higher your initial SAT score, the less likely you will be able to raise it on a subsequent test, even with lots of extra preparation.  As Harvard recently announced in a special message for high-school juniors, “We know that there are fewer opportunities to take the SAT or ACT given the cancellations to date. This means that many students may not be able to take these tests more than once. The fact is that there are diminishing returns in taking these tests multiple times, and we hope students will not feel compelled to do so now or in the future.”
  • If you want to retake the SAT, register for the August AND September SAT as soon as you are allowed to register in May.  If you had been registered for the June 6 test, it appears that the College Board will give you early access to registration for this fall’s tests.  Sign up for both the August and September SATs, just in case.  (What if you sign up only for August, and then the August SAT is canceled while the September and October SATs are “sold out”?)
  • If you have taken the SAT only once so far, and you think you might want to have two retake opportunities (rather than just one), consider also registering for the October SAT, which will produce scores in time for your early applications.  The November and December SATs will yield scores that you can use in regular-action applications due January 1, 2021.
  • Consider registering now for the July 18th ACT, and later on for the September 12th ACT, to keep your options open and to give yourself some additional test-taking practice.  In my experience, the SAT is a better showcase of most students’ skills than the ACT, but the two tests are similar enough that students preparing for the SAT will not need too much additional ACT-specific preparation to feel reasonably ready for the ACT.
  • Forget about SAT Subject Tests—at least until after you have obtained your final set of SAT scores.

For sophomores (the high school class of 2022):

  • Start preparing now, or as soon as possible, for the PSAT and SAT (and/or ACT).  As I’ve discussed before, there are many compelling reasons to start test prep (i.e., essential skill development in reading, grammar, vocabulary, and problem-solving) as early in your high-school career as possible.  The earlier you start test prep during this era of uncertainty (likely lasting into 2022), the more options you will have if tests are unpredictably and suddenly canceled.  The students in a real pickle right now, the ones with the fewest options, are the current juniors who will now not have a chance to take the SAT for the FIRST TIME until August 29th (the start of their senior year).  So start preparing soon and enjoy the luxury of having plenty of time to prepare and a long “runway” for getting your tests done.  Note that the PSAT/NMSQT will be administered (coronavirus willing) in mid-October 2020, so you will want to feel well prepared for that test.
  • If you have already started preparing, or if you are already scoring very well on practice tests, sign up in May for one or more of the SAT (or ACT) administrations between August and December 2020. 

The SAT in 2020: no tests until August 29th, plus (maybe) a “digital SAT”

Earlier today, the College Board confirmed what most of us had expected: the cancellation of the June 6 SAT.  Furthermore, the College Board will not attempt to schedule an SAT in July; instead, it will add a September date (I predict that date will be September 19, one week after the September ACT and two weeks before the October SAT).  The new September test date is the only one that the College Board plans to add to offset the loss of the June 6 and May 2 tests and (for many, if not most, test-takers) the March 14 test.

Sometime in May, registration will open for the August through December 2020 SAT dates, for which the College Board is seeking additional test-center capacity:

Students can register for these administrations starting in May. We’ll contact students directly when we have the exact date. Eligible students can register with a fee waiver.

For each administration, we’re preparing to significantly expand our capacity for students to take the SAT once schools reopen. We’re calling on our member schools and colleges, as well as local communities, to provide additional test center capacity so every student who wants to take the SAT can do so.

Certain students will receive priority in reserving their spots for the August, September, and October tests:

Students can get early access to register for August, September, and October if they’re:

  • Already registered for June
  • In the high school class of 2021 and don’t have SAT scores

From this College Board tweet, it seems that there are two distinct (but to some extent overlapping) categories of students receiving early access:

(1) all students who had registered for the June SAT or SAT Subject Tests and

(2) current juniors who don’t have SAT scores yet.


The lost March 25, April 14, and April 28 school-day SAT administrations may be “made up” this fall, if schools reopen:

Almost all of our state partners and many of our district partners have expressed interest in administering the SAT during the school day in the fall. Some states, like Michigan, have already announced fall testing.

This is an important opportunity, as states and large districts who participate can provide the SAT for free to all their students. Specific information about state and district testing will be shared in the coming weeks. If students were scheduled to take the SAT as part of state-required testing, they can check with their school or district for updates.

However, the College Board acknowledges that there’s a possibility that schools will not reopen this fall.  If (and presumably only if) schools stay closed, the College Board will offer an at-home online SAT, using the soon-to-be-tested model of at-home AP Exams scheduled for this May and June.

In the unlikely event that schools do not reopen this fall, College Board will provide a digital SAT for home use, like how we’re delivering digital exams to 3 million AP students this spring. As we’re doing with at-home Advanced Placement exams, we would ensure that at-home SAT testing is simple, secure and fair, accessible to all, and valid for use in college admissions.

Like the paper test, a digital, remote version of the SAT would measure what students are learning in school and what they need to know to be successful in college.


I imagine that College Board staff are working intensively now to develop that “digital SAT” so that it will be ready to launch this fall if needed.  I expect it will be somewhat shorter than the regular pencil-and-paper SAT, and there will be serious questions about testing integrity and equity.

(The ACT is planning to offer online testing at certain test centers this fall; this will not be an at-home testing option.)

The advent of a computer-based SAT (and PSAT?) to be taken at home

Ahead of today’s expected announcement from the College Board, read this thoughtful piece by Akil Bello that raises important questions about the feasibility and equity of an “eSAT.”

The past several weeks of e-learning across the US have revealed the starkness and unfairness of the “digital divide”; many students lack access to wifi and don’t have computers or tablets.  As Bello writes, “How can the College Board ensure that it will deliver a similar digital experience to a student on a farm with a four-year-old laptop with a 13-inch screen as it will to a student living on Park Avenue using the latest, fastest PC with dual 24-inch monitors?”

The likely answer is that despite good intentions, neither the College Board nor any other institution or organization will be able to deliver “similar digital experiences” to differently situated students, in different homes.  A couple of weeks ago, one of my students, who lacks wifi and who spent the first two years of high school writing papers on her phone (she had never owned any other device), completed the College Board’s form requesting help in gaining online access ahead of this May’s AP exams, but has not heard back from the College Board or from any organization partnering with the College Board to help students gain access.  I don’t know how the College Board, even with the help of partner organizations, can meaningfully address the wifi/device access gap between now and mid-May—or within the next year or two.

Unfortunately, the reality is that no amount of public and private effort will be able to eliminate the digital divide within the next few years.  Efforts will be made, and the digital divide may be reduced somewhat, but the pandemic will continue to shine a harsh light on the fundamental inequities that plague our society and especially our educational systems.

No normalcy in 2020-21: online college and an online SAT loom ahead

Most colleges (and boarding schools) have canceled their summer programs or converted those programs to virtual programs.  For example, Harvard announced changes to its summer programs earlier this week.

Now, colleges are fast approaching a key decision point about how to handle the re-opening of campuses this fall.  It now seems all but certain that campuses will not be able to reopen, at least not in any “normal” way, on time in August or September.  Waiting until January 2021 to start the new academic year is one of the options that many colleges and universities (including Boston University) are exploring.

This must-read article appearing in today’s New York Times explores the impact of the pandemic on current college students as well as on current high-school seniors and juniors.  Here are some key points from the article:

More schools are making the SAT and ACT optional.  However, as I’ve pointed out previously, students who are nonetheless able to submit strong test scores to test-optional schools have an advantage in the admissions process.

It seems that the College Board is moving in the direction of an online, at-home SAT to be administered during the 2020-21 school year.  If so, this will be a seismic shift in the testing landscape:

David Coleman, the president of the College Board, which administers the SAT, said last week that he was preparing for “an at-home style solution” for testing if the national shutdowns continue, and the organization plans to make an announcement on Wednesday [April 15] about the future of the SAT.

On the admissions front, there may be a silver lining for at least the privileged (full-pay) members of the high-school class of 2021:

Despite disruptions to testing and the admissions process, it could be easier for [current high-school juniors] to get into their stretch schools or off the wait list if overall enrollment declines — especially for those who can afford to pay full tuition, if fewer international students apply to U.S. schools.

I’ve been strongly recommending that current high-school seniors take a gap year in 2020-21.  Current college students may want to consider taking a yearlong leave of absence as well.  All college students (including incoming freshmen) should take a hard look at what their e-learning experiences have been like this spring and ask whether they really want to sign up for a full academic year of e-learning, with a significant price tag, in 2020-21.  

Overall, for various reasons, student enrollment will drop in 2020-21, further undermining the financial security of many institutions:

Many current students are dissatisfied with how the virus has changed the nature of college. To some, online classes and closed student centers, gyms and science labs don’t seem worth the high prices they’re paying. At places like the University of Chicago and Iowa State, students are petitioning their schools to cut tuition by as much as 50 percent for as long as the pandemic lasts.

So far, universities have resisted, saying they will try to increase financial aid instead — although declining endowments and donations could make that difficult. 

Institutions are considering creative solutions, including reconfiguring their courses to enable greater flexibility:

Hampshire’s president, Ed Wingenbach, has put together a working group that is considering shorter units of study that would allow students to cycle in and out of remote learning if the virus comes and goes.

“If we’re looking at remote learning in the fall,” he said, “I think it’s more likely students will take a gap year or semester, and that will have a different impact on revenue.”

 

School Day SAT administrations cannot be rescheduled

The College Board has provided a further update on the SAT administrations by school districts that had been scheduled for March 25, April 14, and April 28, 2020:

SAT School Day Administrations

In alignment with coronavirus guidance from public health organizations, school closures across the country, and discussions with local education leaders, College Board can’t reschedule the March 25 SAT School Day administration or provide administrations on April 14 and 28.

We’ll be flexible in making the SAT available within and outside of school as soon as possible. We’re exploring multiple solutions to address increased demand and are talking with states and districts about School Day administrations.

PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9

College Board also can’t provide the April PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9 administrations. Unfortunately, there won’t be opportunities for PSAT 10 or PSAT 8/9 testing this spring.

This inability to offer make-up tests does not come as a surprise.  In the era of coronavirus, students have extra reasons to start test prep early and take the SAT or ACT at least once BEFORE the start of junior year.  Colleges will not be abandoning the SAT or ACT as an important element of applications anytime soon.  But the most important reason to start test prep early is that test prep, if approached correctly, identifies and addresses gaps in students’ learning in the key areas of reading, vocabulary, math, and grammar.  Why wouldn’t you want to strengthen these skills as early in your high-school years as possible?

The demise of SAT Subject Tests

SAT Subject Tests, previously known as SAT II and (before that) as Achievement Tests, are hourlong multiple-choice standardized tests administered by the College Board.  They cover a somewhat odd variety of subjects (how many American high schools teach courses in Modern Hebrew or Korean?), and for many years, top colleges required applicants to submit three SAT Subject Test scores.  More recently, many elite colleges have been recommending that applicants submit two SAT Subject Test scores.  Students’ (and parents’) awareness of these tests and their role in college applicants has been minimal; over the past 16 years, I’ve seen many students who suddenly realize in the fall of senior year that they need to take SAT Subject Tests; they study very little for these tests and don’t score particularly well, and their SAT Subject Test scores become a weakness in their college applications.

But we are now on the verge of a permanent shift.  On March 20, 2020, MIT announced that it will no longer ask applicants to submit SAT Subject Test scores; in fact, it will not even ALLOW any future applicants to submit SAT Subject Test scores.

“[I]n fairness to all applicants, we won’t consider them for anyone. We think it would be unfair to consider scores only from those who have scored well and therefore choose to send them to us. They are neither recommended nor optional; they are simply not a part of our process anymore.”

About the timing of the announcement of this policy change:

We had already been planning to make this change, and decided to announce as soon as possible in part because we wanted to make sure no one was spending more time or energy studying for tests they wouldn’t have to take for us, especially during a public health emergency. As we’ve written elsewhere, your focus right now should be on your health, and the health of your community, and not worrying about college applications.”

Bravo to MIT for making this change, for insisting on leveling the playing field by not allowing any applicants to submit SAT Subject Test scores, for putting students’ well-being first, and for announcing the change now instead of waiting until this summer.  (Note that “test-optional” colleges, which don’t require but still allow applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, end up with two categories of applicants: higher-scoring kids who submit their scores (~80% of applicants) and kids who can be presumed to have scored lower because they’ve chosen not to send in scores (~20% of applicants).  This is emphatically NOT a leveling of the playing field.  Are there any colleges that simply do not permit any applicants to submit test scores?  That would be a true leveling of the playing field.) 

(MIT’s updated testing requirements for applicants are listed here.)

Traditionally, colleges revisit their application requirements, from testing requirements to application essay prompts, during the summer months.  The summer of 2018 saw a mass exodus away from requiring or recommending that college applicants take the SAT or ACT essay; most students now have no reason to take the SAT or ACT essay.  I predict that the summer of 2020 will bring a mass exodus away from requiring or recommending that college applicants submit SAT Subject Test scores, especially now that an institution as prominent as MIT is leading the way.  

[April 15, 2020 update: Harvard has announced that applicants will in no way be disadvantaged in the admissions process if they do not submit SAT Subject Test scores.]

Many current juniors are wondering whether they should take SAT Subject Tests between now and this fall (October is the latest test date for students applying early to colleges).  My advice is to focus first on taking or retaking the SAT (or ACT), as needed; those tests have always been more important than SAT Subject Tests.  Once you have achieved what you feel are your best possible SAT or ACT scores (on your first or second try), check the admissions websites of the colleges you plan to apply to and ascertain whether any of these colleges is requiring or recommending SAT Subject Test scores for 2020-21 applicants.

In recent years, many colleges had already moved away from SAT Subject Tests by downgrading them from “required” to “recommended,” and/or by asking for scores on two rather than three SAT Subject Tests.  As of this year, only a small number of colleges were asking for SAT Subject Tests, and they were simply recommending that students send SAT Subject Test scores.  My senior who was just admitted to Stanford, Wharton, Emory, and USC, among other schools, did not submit any SAT Subject Test scores to any of the 18 schools to which he applied.  (He needs heavy financial aid, so he applied to more schools than the typical applicant.)

In sum, I expect SAT Subject Tests to pass into irrelevancy by August 2020.