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Dr. Grauer's Column - The Impact Of Not Submitting SAT Or ACT Scores At Top Colleges

This column is a must-read for anyone looking for an enlightened path through the college admissions maze. Say goodbye to unnecessary stress and make well-informed, strategic decisions that can maximize your chances for success and happiness.

The Impact Of Not Submitting SAT Or ACT Scores At Top Colleges

Last week in this column, I cited some amazing research on the impact of simply changing your mindset on stress and using it as a motivator. This week, I will focus on just one aspect of a common, high school heartbreak: test prep. The purpose of this column is to provide you with useful context regarding the “standard” college entry requirements in a way that is both informative and inspiring. 

The Grauer School advocates for a strong work ethic which is manifest in student and teacher perseverance, resourcefulness, and accountability, particularly when driven by intrinsic motivation. These purposes propel us into the success we want and, often, a revelatory discovery of self. Grauer of course has become an influential advocate for practices to awaken generosity, creativity and kindness in ourselves and our organizations.

Grauer students Luella and MJ, looking for students to join their Autism Awareness Club at The Grauer School's annual Club Fair - September 12, 2023

As it happens, much of the college admissions data from The Grauer School has been both strong and transformational, especially for a small school. When college admissions officers evaluate our candidates, the uniqueness of our school is routinely a key factor, according to those officers. We advise against going to The Grauer School and attempting to compile a “large school profile” for college. You may give up the strategic advantages that Grauer kids have. 

Colleges and universities look to Grauer kids to be engaged with teachers and their learning, involved in compassionate service or creative endeavors, and to be using their evolved, personal voice they developed in high school. Colleges looking for 1600 SAT scores can fill up their freshman classes with kids from any number of local independent or public schools, but Grauer kids distinguish themselves uniquely, a substantial strategic advantage. 

We also know that kids who focus a lot on the standardized measures risk living with stressors that are unnecessary and un-strategic. Please refer to my column from September 4, 2023 for powerful data on this.

Diminishing Returns & Opportunity Cost
A high test score is one of many ways to open doors. However, according to experts, it's likely that a relatively small percentage of high school seniors would fit the criteria of being such "naturally great test-takers" that they should consider sacrificing other more impactful efforts solely to improve their test scores. Those “other” efforts bring not only joy, but real benefits in college along with useful life-skills preparation, and they help students find best fit schools. As I have often written, they are “what the world needs of us.”

If you are a great test taker, go for it: that’s your advantage. If your strengths lie elsewhere, go to those! Just because every year students get into college for their football prowess, you should not drop test prep to play football if tests are your thing. Likewise, if arts, social skills, service or sports are your thing, why would you forsake them to practice test taking? (The answers to this big question are covered, below.)

Grauer students Charlotte, Jasper, and Karina preparing to use nopales (cactus paddles) that they foraged on The Grauer School's campus in their cooking project - September 7, 2023

The Debate
The role of standardized test scores in college admissions has been a subject of ongoing debate and scrutiny. Many top colleges have adapted their admissions policies to be more inclusive and holistic, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the anxiety/depression crisis that has overtaken our nation’s youth. This report focuses on three key aspects regarding the impact of not submitting SAT or ACT scores for admissions to top colleges:

  1. Test-Optional Policies
  2. Holistic Review Approach
  3. Research Data and Studies

Test-Optional Policies
Definition: Test-optional policies allow students to choose whether to submit SAT or ACT scores as part of their college application. These policies are designed to reduce test-related stress and make college admissions more equitable. Colleges desperately do not want stressed-out kids.

Top Colleges with Test-Optional Policies
As of the last data we could find, many elite institutions have adopted test-optional policies, including the University of California, which is now “test blind.” These include:

  • University of California
  • University of Chicago
  • Cornell University
  • Columbia University
  • Dartmouth College
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Brown University
  • California Institute of Technology (Caltech)
  • Georgetown University
  • Northwestern University
  • Duke University
  • Johns Hopkins University
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Harvard University
  • Princeton University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • Brown University
  • Yale University (see footnote for Yale’s new policy: [1] )
  • Northwestern University

This is only a sample of the so-called “elites,” and there are of course a great many more colleges, many of which might be more suitable to our grads. We are aware that the test optional trend is accelerating. Here is a resource such as students can get in their counselling office: 25 Best Test-Optional Colleges

Implications: For these schools, and thousands more, not submitting test scores should not be a disadvantage as they claim to evaluate each application in a more comprehensive manner. However, it's essential to verify the current policies directly from the college's admissions page, as these can change.

Grauer High School Robotics student Augie, explaining the just-released FIRST Tech Challenge competition to his team members - September 12, 2023

Holistic Review Approach
Definition: Holistic review refers to the practice college admissions offices have of evaluating an applicant based on multiple criteria, including academic performance, extracurricular activities, essays, and letters of recommendation, rather than focusing solely on test scores.

Top Colleges with Holistic Review
In addition to thousands of colleges, many Ivy League schools and other elite institutions emphasize a holistic approach, and this list is growing fast, including:

  • Harvard University
  • Brown University
  • Stanford University
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  • Yale University
  • Princeton University
  • University of California, Berkeley
  • University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • New York University (NYU)
  • University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Rice University
  • Emory University
  • University of Notre Dame

Like test optional colleges, the holistic review colleges are increasing rapidly for various reasons from political to pedagogical. Holistic review is not all or nothing: 77% of Columbia admits are top 10% GPA grads, for instance. Some colleges are more holistic than others, but none of them want overwhelmingly similar classrooms of high test scorers.

Implications: For applicants to these schools, a strong application in other areas often offsets the lack of test scores. The holistic approach allows colleges to identify potential in a broader range of students, considering factors like grit, passion, and specialized talent. As noted, college admissions offices have come to look to Grauer for attributes like these.

Research Data and Studies
Findings:  Some research suggests that there is little to no difference in college performance between students who submitted test scores and those who did not. For example, a study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling found that test-optional policies did not affect the academic quality of incoming classes.

Implications: 40% of college entrants do not finish college in 6 years. This finding may suggest that test scores are not the most accurate predictors of college success and may support the move towards more test-optional and holistic admissions policies at top colleges. 

Grauer teacher Liam Murphy teaching 7th Grade Grauer students how to make paper airplanes and explaining the basics of aerodynamics that make the airplanes fly - September 8, 2023

The competitive nature of college admissions is frequently amplified by test prep companies to justify the need for their services. These campaigns can create a sense of urgency and fear, suggesting that failing to invest in test prep could lead to missed opportunities. Individual testimonials and success stories that showcase the effectiveness of their programs create the impression that extensive test prep is universally necessary for success. This creates an environment where students and parents may feel that extensive and often expensive test preparation is not just advantageous, but necessary for success, even when this may not be true for many and, we believe, most.

Such campaigns have been criticized by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, Applied Psychology journal, and even the College Board. Many noted educational experts have written op-eds or contributed to scholarly studies that question the ethics and impact of the test prep industry's marketing tactics.

As much as I hate to say this, we must include the fact that if you can pay full tuition it can be a substantial admissions factor for typical US colleges, as applications and confidence in US colleges drop (unlike in virtually all other countries). [2]

While the lack of SAT or ACT scores may not automatically disadvantage an applicant at top colleges, the impact largely depends on the specific institution's policies and how holistically they review applications. The trend towards test-optional policies and holistic review at several elite institutions may alleviate the need for standardized test scores. However, given the rapidly changing landscape, we advise applicants to stay updated on each individual college's current admissions policies and requirements. We also advise our students to pick their college on goodness of fit and not rank and status, so they increase their chances for leadership and joy while in school.

Aside from the “top name" colleges and any fixation some have about them, there are over 4000 colleges in our country, and finding the real fit is a great path to leadership and purpose. The Grauer School's methods are grounded in well-established educational theories that prioritize holistic development, intrinsic motivation, and well-being. Our approach is validated by numerous testimonials from students and parents, endorsements from college admissions officers, and strong metrics such as college acceptance and scholarship rates (published in our Annual Report). Additionally, our commitment to student wellness is supported by rigorous, normed empirical data (likewise published). Naturally, other schools have other methods that may suit their purposes as educators and the different values of their families. However, today’s life-changing anxiety and depression rates are a critical aspect of any ethical school approach.

If a student excels in test taking, getting test scores might make sense. Other students are served far better by advancing those areas where they find joy, be they in service, arts, sports, or character elements. A fundamental outcome of the education we hope to impart is the wisdom and courage to make healthy, courageous, and independent life choices.

Grauer teachers and staff dressed in their finest Country Western gear for Fall Spirit Week - September 12, 2023

Thoughts To Take With You
Factors that contribute to happiness are incredibly varied and personal, including relationships, work-life balance, mental and physical health, and more. SAT scores are unlikely to be a significant factor in long-term happiness. While a high SAT score may offer advantages to specific students, such as an advantage in seeking admission to certain educational institutions, it's far from the only predictor of admission into those institutions or of future success, earnings, or happiness. Each student must find their own passion area to work at.

While test preparation is undoubtedly important for success in standardized tests, the expected 30-40 points may not be worth all that time and stress, and an excessive focus fueled by negative stress may not always yield proportionally higher benefits and can be counterproductive.

SAT scores are a narrow measure of specific academic skills. They do not capture other forms of intelligence, creativity, or characteristics which can be more important in life success. The negative stress caused by the college admissions process is absolutely not required or useful. Finding your passion or place and working towards it is the most beautiful undertaking in life.


[1] Yale Standardized Testing Requirements & Policies - “Yale will extend its test-optional admissions policy to the 2023-2024 admissions cycle. All applicants for undergraduate admission for fall 2024 enrollment may apply with or without ACT or SAT scores. The admissions office plans to announce a long-term policy on standardized testing in winter 2024. The decision will be informed by the data and insights generated from the most recent admissions cycles.”

[2] Americans Are Losing Faith in the Value of College. Whose Fault is That?, New York Times Magazine.

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Photos for Dr. Grauer's Column

Grauer students Luella and MJ, looking for students to join their Autism Awareness Club at The Grauer School's annual Club Fair - September 12, 2023

Grauer students Charlotte, Jasper, and Karina preparing to use nopales (cactus paddles) that they foraged on The Grauer School's campus in their cooking project - September 7, 2023

Grauer High School Robotics student Augie, explaining the just-released FIRST Tech Challenge competition to his team members - September 12, 2023

Grauer teacher Liam Murphy teaching 7th Grade Grauer students how to make paper airplanes and explaining the basics of aerodynamics that make the airplanes fly - September 8, 2023

Grauer teachers and staff dressed in their finest Country Western gear for Fall Spirit Week - September 12, 2023

Fearless Teaching® Book
by Dr. Stuart Grauer

Fearless Teaching® is a stirring and audacious jaunt around the world that peeks—with the eyes of one of America’s most seasoned educators–into places you will surely never see on your own. Some are disappearing. It is a bit like playing hooky from school. You will travel to the Swiss Alps, Korea, Navajo, an abandoned factory in Missouri, the Holy Land, the Great Rift Valley, the schools of Cuba, the ocean waves, and the human subconscious—oh, and Disneyland.

There you will find colorful stories for the encouragement, inspiration, and courage needed by educators and parents. Fearless Teaching is not a fix-it book—it is more a way of seeing the world and the school so that you can stay in your work and focus on what matters most to you.

"Grauer’s writing reminds us that Great Teaching, singular, rare, unusual, is something that should be sought after and found. Thank you.”
Richard Dreyfuss, Actor, Oxford scholar, founder of The Dreyfuss Initiative

Click here to order Fearless Teaching® today

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Dr. Grauer's Column - Beyond the Diploma

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Join Dr. Grauer in a profound conversation with Dr. Edith Eger, psychotherapist and inspiring Holocaust survivor. Dr. Edie imparts timeless wisdom on living fully in the present, the power of healing, and the art of transforming life’s deepest challenges into strength and love.