Note: This advice is presented in mid-April 2019 and is subject to change as policies change. Check back for updated advice, and feel free to reach out to us for up-to-date guidance.
Since mid-March, when COVID-19 altered the patterns of our lives, many students and parents have reached out to ask what they should do about SAT or ACT prep in social isolation or even under quarantine. And when the March 14 SAT and April 4 ACT dates were canceled, many students in the high school Class of 2021 were confused. Those who had prepped for those dates were frustrated because they worried that their hard work had been in vain. Would they ever be able to take the SAT or ACT?
Because the virus follows its own logic and does not yet respond very much to human efforts, we cannot know when life will return to normal, much less when schools will be open, or whether standardized tests will be offered again in person before college application deadlines next winter. Each day, more colleges and universities announce “test-optional” policies for applicants in the high school Class of 2021. As I type this essay, I see that Williams College will be test-optional next admissions season. Meanwhile, based on the examples of the LSAT, GMAT, and GRE, there is reason to believe that an online, at-home SAT and/or ACT will be available in time for next winter’s deadlines, but that possibility is far from certain.
When it comes to testing and admissions, the situation is highly fluid and will probably remain so for at least the next two months. Yet neither inaction nor despair is an effective response. There is some SAT and ACT prep advice that high school juniors and their parents can benefit from hearing and following.
First and foremost, focus most of all on your mental and physical well-being. Don’t worry about test dates; you can’t control them, so let them go. Don’t listen to rumors, and don’t despair that you will never go to college or that it will be impossible to get in. Do what you can to maintain intellectual and emotional equanimity, as well as your health. Without those, you really are bereft.
Do not assume, if you have not already achieved the scores you want or need, that you will not be taking the SAT or ACT (and possibly SAT Subject Tests) before you apply to college. The College Board and ACT are big and capable organizations with smart people working on the problem of testing as many current high school juniors as possible before next winter. Yes, many schools will be test-optional, but remember that you may be competing against students who made high scores in fall or winter of junior year, and possibly others who will have taken tests online or in person between now and 2021.
If you are a junior, do not rely on the assumption that you will be given months of lead time between announcements of test dates and those actual dates. It is possible that you will be able to take a test this summer or fall, but with only a month or less of advance notice. No one knows what registration will look like, or how much choice of date you will be offered. So be ready when the opportunity presents itself.
If you have already prepared for the March 2020 SAT or April 2020 ACT and were unable to take it, do not let your prep deteriorate into a state of rust. It’s quite all right to rest for a month or two while you get your bearings, but I wouldn’t recommend doing nothing from March until September and then hoping you can instantly ramp up to the score you had this spring. If you are already working with a tutor, don’t drop things for months. Consider shorter or more frequent online meetings, or bear down now that you have more free time to concentrate.
If you do have extra time because school is less demanding than usual, use it to build fundamental skills that make higher scores easier to reach. It always helps to build skills before practicing execution. Build your literacy by reading a lot. Develop your math skills with problem sets. Study grammar and syntax conventions diligently.
Don’t use your extra time to blow through all your practice tests. There are only so many high quality real and simulated SATs and ACTs out there. Don’t do a full test per day, with no practice in between—pace your use of real test materials. And do any sections from real tests timed and in full: don’t do a few problems here and there from sections that should be done as coherent units.
Another misuse of extra time is preparing for both the SAT and the ACT simultaneously. For almost all students, it’s still better to pick one and prep for that.
That said, if you are applying to very highly ranked colleges, keep an eye on SAT Subject Test dates. If you need, say, a Math 2 or Physics score, you may want to prep for the ACT rather than the SAT in order to open up a Subject Test date.
Consider forming a study group with some friends who have similar scores and goals. Meet online to hold each other accountable and stay motivated. Have fun reviewing questions and sections, and maybe connect with a tutor who can help.
In summary, try not to worry, and be ready when the time comes. Use your materials wisely. Take your schoolwork seriously. Build your basic skills. Have as much fun as you can, and connect with your friends to support one another. We are always here to help.