RIP to the SAT — yet another victim of COVID-19.
One year after the pandemic spurred almost every college and university in the nation to make standardized testing optional for 2020’s applicants, the lack of SAT and ACT scores on college applications is fast becoming the new normal.
“More and more colleges are saying they’re going to extend their test-optional policy at least for the current junior class,” college counselor Sara Harberson told The Post. “And after this year, I think we’ll see more colleges adopt it permanently.”
Few high-school students are mourning the loss of the high-stakes, high-stress exams. But the sudden disappearance of a pillar of the college admissions equation is having unexpected consequences — making the application process more confusing, more competitive and more opaque than ever before.
“It’s making colleges even more subjective in their decision-making,” said Harberson, who drew on her 20-year career as an admissions dean, high-school counselor and private-practice college coach to write “Soundbite: The Admissions Secret That Gets You Into College and Beyond” (Hachette), out Tuesday.
At first, dropping the test requirement was a pandemic necessity. As states locked down and testing sites shuttered, most members of the Class of 2021 — who would have taken their ACTs and SATs in the spring and early fall of last year — couldn’t sit for them.
“But every time a college announces a change like this, it’s for selfish reasons,” Harberson noted.
After all, when the coronavirus arrived, universities were still reeling from the 2019 admissions scandal that sent Felicity Huffman to prison for paying a professional to rig her daughter’s SAT answers and gain a higher score.
As the shamed universities — including Yale, Stanford and USC — dropped the tests, their application numbers skyrocketed.
“We are hearing about ridiculous application increases,” Harberson said. Selective schools saw applications surge by as much as 103 percent this year, as students opted to take a shot at colleges that previously seemed beyond their reach.
“Some are reporting big increases in students of color in their applicant pools, as well as more first-generation college students and more rural students,” Harberson said.
“So you better believe these colleges that went test-optional are extending it. They want to see, was this just a fluke? And also, how will these students perform once they actually get to college?”
For high-school juniors and sophomores who must navigate this brave new admissions world, though, the path ahead is an even greater unknown.
“The increased subjectivity means that each of the other pieces of the application is going to matter much more,” Harberson said.
Few if any colleges have added new admissions officers (or AOs) to handle the deluge of applications — meaning they must speed through thousands more student records than before in only weeks.
“An admissions application can be read in about four to five minutes,” Harberson explained. “And a decision can be made right then and there, in seconds — literally seconds.”
And “what actually happens behind closed doors in these admissions offices is still a very private and secretive process.”
In her book, Harberson reveals some of the elements that matter most.
Transcript: Without a test score as an academic yardstick, student transcripts will be scrutinized more closely than ever — even though remote learning threw GPAs and grading standards into disarray.
“Never has senior-year performance mattered more than during this pandemic,” Harberson said.
AOs look closely at a student’s course load and its level of difficulty, along with grades, to gauge academic ability and commitment. “The more selective the college, the more nitpicky they’re going to be about the classes you take,” she said.
“So take the most rigorous curriculum you can,” Harberson advised. “Strong senior-year classes and grades are like a foolproof vaccination plan for college admission.”
Essays: “It’s not how well-written your essay is,” Harberson said. “It’s the topic you pick.”
Through their essays, students can appeal directly to the AO. So don’t bore her with a predictable presentation.
“If the main essay is about something that is not mentioned anywhere else in the application, if it tells a new story, the AO is instantly more intrigued,” Harberson writes in her book.
A successful essay will illustrate a moment of growth or self-awareness, casting the student in a positive light while revealing his or her authentic voice. “The essay is where you can show off those little secret things about you that they would otherwise never know,” Harberson said. “Admissions officers rely on them to make their most nuanced decisions.”
Activities: Last year, pandemic school closures eliminated the clubs and sports that help students stand out from the crowd. Lockdowns took away the chance for summer jobs and internships that would have highlighted their abilities and interests.
But services performed for the family or the neighborhood have just as much value, Harberson said. So do personal projects — from scientific experiments to artistic creations — undertaken when traditional activities and organizations shut down.
“It’s about the impact the activity has on your life and the commitment you’ve made to it,” Harberson said. “In your activity list, the qualities and skills you gained through these experiences speak to who you are.”
Demonstrated interest: Optimally, a college or university wants to offer its spots to students who genuinely want to join its next class.
“The AO will look at a student’s track record of ‘touch points’ with the college to determine their likelihood of enrolling,” Harberson explained.
In the past, that might have included whether the family took a campus tour or whether the student applied in the early-action round.
“But because of the pandemic, demonstrated interest is changing,” Harberson said. “Now, if a college sends an e-mail, they’ll record whether the student opened it, or whether they clicked on the link. They’ll look at whether the student took a virtual tour.
“A virtual visit is not the same as being there in person, but, my gosh, did that level the playing field for students coming from every economic background,” she said.
The pandemic also spawned virtual college fairs, yielding a whole new series of touch points for colleges to monitor.
“Some AOs are definitely keeping track of who is engaged in those Zoom presentations,” Harberson said. “I’m telling my students, have your video on, look presentable at least from the waist up, and be ready to share your story. This could be a chance for you to shine.”
In her book, Harberson helps teens create a “sound bite,” a single sentence summing up their personality, abilities and plans — much like the elevator pitch concept beloved by entrepreneurs — and she demonstrates how to thread that theme through the college application package.
The concept meshes with the techniques Harberson used in her days as an AO at the University of Pennsylvania.
“At Penn we used to call it the student’s ‘bottom line,’ ” she recalled. “You’d recommend an acceptance or a denial, and with that one sentence you’d say the reason why. Your ‘bottom line’ on the student would contain the evidence to back your decision up.”
Everything hinged on that one-sentence summary, she realized years later when she became a college counselor at a Philadelphia-area high school. But her students had no way to influence the AO’s evaluation — or did they?
“I wanted to turn the tables; I wanted to give my students the power,” she said. “The sound bite concept gives the student a chance to identify what makes them special.”
By weaving their sound bite theme through each section of the college application, Harberson says, students can paint an appealing, persuasive portrait of themselves as a potential member of a campus community — one that AOs will find hard to resist.
“I tell them you don’t have to be the standout in an applicant pool,” Harberson said. “You can be extraordinary at a social skill, at an interpersonal skill, at public speaking, at creating a unique form of art.
“It’s getting students to realize that they don’t have to be the best at what everybody else is doing, but to identify the little things that make them exceptional — and that oftentimes they overlook.”
How to create a college sound bite
In “Soundbite,” Sara Harberson shows college-bound students how to define themselves, their strengths, and their goals with a powerful, concise label that helps them take the reins in the admissions process.
Use this brainstorming exercise to develop a “sound bite” of your own.
Step 1: Write five words (nouns or verbs only) about yourself that, when combined, no one else could say about themselves:
Step 2: Briefly describe why each word is so indicative of you. Provide classes, grades, awards, activities, and experiences that showcase why these words are truly authentic to you.
Step 3: Study both lists. Look for at least two or three words that share an obvious connection to each other.
Step 4: Think about any defining personal traits that influence you (e.g., background, physical characteristics, major obstacle, or family situation).
Step 5: Tie together words from your lists and your personal traits to write a sentence about yourself in 40 words or fewer — your sound bite.
Here are a few “sound bites” formulated by students Harberson has advised — and the schools they ultimately chose.
“I am creative at my core, which has led me to start writing books at an early age and to spend much of my free time engaged in developing story/poetry ideas in my writing and sketching.” (Dickinson College)
“I am interested in both the theatrics of the courtroom through my role as a lead trial attorney in Mock Trial and the behind-the-scenes work of contracts and labor law through my legal internship.” (Tufts University)
“I am a Filipino-Russian American who has moved many times, which allows me to adapt in domestic and foreign environments, where I represent diversity of all kinds.” (Rice University)
“I use my voice, through music, public speaking, and moviemaking, to transform the place I live into an inclusive environment by encouraging dialogue, organizing community fundraisers, and working on a grassroots level.” (Brown University)
“I am a second-degree black belt in Kenpo Karate, which has taught me to be decisive and precise, and these skills help me in the male-dominated world of robotics.” (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)
Excerpted from “SOUNDBITE: The Admissions Secret That Gets You Into College and Beyond” by Sara Harberson. Copyright ©2021. Available from Hachette Go, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.