The Importance of Extracurriculars and GPA in a Test-Optional/Test-Blind World

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In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted and changed education. Schools went virtual. Football games and prom nights got canceled—and so did ACT/SAT exam dates. Colleges realized that amidst these unusual circumstances, high school students would have a hard time scheduling their exams, not to mention performing to the best of their abilities.

As a result, many colleges did not require SAT or ACT test scores during the college application process for 2020-2021. This includes highly ranked schools such as Ivy League universities, top liberal arts colleges, MIT, Johns Hopkins, and more. Numerous schools will continue this policy for a two or three-year period, and some say they will stop requiring test scores permanently.

For high school students, this means that test scores become less important. At the same time, other components of the application, like GPA and extracurricular participation, are more important than ever. In this guide, we’ll explain how to navigate a test-optional/test-blind world as you apply to colleges!

What’s the difference between test-optional and test-blind?

You may have heard the terms “test-optional” and “test-blind.” So, what’s the difference?

Test-optional colleges allow you to choose whether to submit test scores. If you do send ACT or SAT scores, these schools will consider them as part of your application. If you don’t, they won’t hold it against you.

On the other hand, test-blind colleges will not consider test scores at all. This means that even if you send ACT or SAT scores, they won’t be evaluated with your application.

Although test-optional is currently a common practice, only a few schools are test-blind. One notable test-blind school is the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

If that wasn’t complicated enough, you may also come across schools that are test-flexible. These colleges require test scores for applicants below a certain GPA threshold (e.g., 3.0). Students above the designated threshold are not required to submit scores.

How long will test-optional and test-blind policies last?

Every college is responsible for setting its own policies when it comes to test scores. Some schools have committed to remaining test-optional through 2022, while others will continue being test-optional for 2022-2023.

Finally, a few universities plan to stay test-optional permanently, such as Bowdoin College and Kent State University. Additional universities may join them in the future, but they are using the next 2-3 years as a trial period before making a final decision.

If you want to know a specific school’s policy, visit the school’s website or call the admissions office.

Should I still take the ACT/SAT?

Yes, it’s still a good idea to take the ACT/SAT. First, keep in mind that some schools will require test scores for 2021-2022. Look up the policies for each college you’re applying to and note whether scores are required. If they’re not required, is the school test-blind, test-optional, or even test-flexible?

  • For schools that require test scores: Send them.
  • For schools that are test-blind: Don’t send them.
  • For schools that are test-optional: It’s up to you!
  • For schools that are test-flexible: Send them if your GPA is below the threshold; it’s up to you if you’re at or above the threshold.

Even if none of your college choices require the SAT/ACT, it may benefit you to take the exam. If test scores are optional, you have the opportunity to be strategic. Send your scores if they’ll help your application, and don’t send them if they’re more likely to hurt your application.

You might wonder: How do I know if my score will help me or hurt me? School websites typically list the average test scores of admitted students. If your score is significantly below the average, don’t send it. If it’s average, and especially if it’s higher, send it. This means that you may choose to send your test scores to some schools, and not send them to others.

A strong test score can help you stand out from the competition. Additionally, good test scores can balance out a slightly lower GPA or lackluster extracurricular participation. But if you don’t send your scores to a test-optional school, there’s no harm done. However, you will need to rely on other components of your application—such as GPA and extracurriculars—to help you stand out.

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Tips for Maximizing Your GPA

The reduced importance of test scores makes other measurable factors, like your GPA, more important than ever. Here are some helpful tips to make sure your GPA shines:

Take Rigorous Classes

When colleges look at your transcripts, they aren’t only evaluating your grades. They’re also looking at the rigor of your classes. They want you to take the most challenging courses available at your school, and demonstrate that you’re capable of acing them.

Sign up for AP and/or IB classes at your school. Take classes related to your future major (if you’ve already decided on one). Not only will this prepare you for your future, but it’ll also show colleges that you’re passionate about the subject area, committed to it, and able to excel.

Practice good study habits throughout the year, and study thoroughly for your AP/IB exams. Scores like these may also become more important in the wake of test-blind/test-optional policies.

Take Notes

Taking notes in class keeps you focused. It improves your ability to both absorb and retain information, ultimately improving your grades.

Get a notebook for each class, and record new or important information during each class period. Pay attention to information that appears on slides or handouts, as well as the information that your teacher repeats.

Each evening when you do your homework, read over your notes for the day. When you hear, write, and read information, it becomes much easier to remember. If you come across anything confusing, make a note to ask your teacher about it the next day.

Practice Good Study Habits

The practice of taking notes and reviewing them builds a strong foundation for great study habits. It prevents you from cramming mountains of information the night before the test, only to forget it immediately afterward. (And remember: you’re also learning for your future college and career success, not just for one test.)

When it’s time for a test, review your notes and textbook chapter(s) again. On a separate sheet of paper, write down anything that seems unfamiliar to you. Revisit this list at least once more before concluding your study session. You can also use any study guides your teacher provides, create flashcards, or make two-column notes.

If you and your friends won’t get too distracted by socializing, study groups can also be helpful. When I was in high school, my friends and I studied separately. But the morning of a big test, we met at a local coffee shop near our school. We quizzed each other, reviewed material, and clarified any misunderstandings or confusion.

Ask for Help

Don’t let your fear of asking for help prevent you from learning and succeeding. Ask your teacher when you don’t understand something. If you struggle with AP English, partner with a peer who’s doing well. Maybe trade off subjects—for instance, help them with AP Calculus if it’s a strength for you and not for them.

You can also get tutoring if you’re falling behind in a subject. It doesn’t mean you aren’t talented or intelligent. In fact, it means you’re smart enough and strong enough to ask for help when it’s needed.

Tips for Maximizing Your Extracurriculars

Now that colleges have fewer data points to consider, schools (especially selective ones) will likely place more emphasis on the subjective parts of your application. This includes your extracurricular participation.

When it comes to extracurricular activities, colleges are looking for quality over quantity. They don’t want to fill their school with students who do a lot of things. They’re looking to find students with diverse interests and talents, who each do a few things very well. Here are a few tips for quality extracurricular participation:

Pursue Your Passions

You don’t have to limit yourself to one “thing,” but you should choose extracurricular activities you’re passionate about. If you have a major/career in mind, choose a couple of relevant organizations to join. Then join a couple of other groups or activities that excite and inspire you.

Your extracurricular activities should give colleges insight into who you are. What do you love? What inspires you? What makes you “tick?” Choose activities for these reasons, and not because you think they’re impressive or because your best friend signed up.

The more your application tells the story of you, the more you’ll stand out. This is especially true in a test-blind/test-optional world.

Be Consistent

Once you’ve found 3-6 activities you’re passionate about, stick with them. If you absolutely hate something, you can drop it. But for the most part, colleges want to see consistency. If you find a few activities you’re passionate about, then pursue them and grow within them throughout your high school career, colleges will take notice.

Lead and Achieve

What does it mean to grow within an activity? Contribute more and more each year, eventually taking on leadership roles. Receive honors, awards, and recognition.

The most obvious way to lead is to get elected to an official leadership role, like a club officer or a team captain. You can also participate in student government. And if your school doesn’t have a particular organization you’re interested in, start it yourself!

But you don’t have to be an official leader to lead within an organization. You can also run committees, solve or help solve problems, introduce new ideas and initiatives, recruit new members, etc.

Another way to show growth is to earn awards and recognition. Enter competitions related to your interests, and pursue opportunities to showcase your abilities. Other ways to demonstrate talent include being selected for internships, selective summer programs, or research projects.

By leading and achieve, you demonstrate that you’re not only passionate about your favorite activities; you’re also a standout in these areas!

Write It Down

Finally, be sure to keep a document recording the following:

  • The activities you participate in, including start and end dates
  • Ways you contribute within these activities/organizations
  • Leadership roles related to these activities/organizations
  • Honors, awards, or recognition

No matter what you do, it won’t help your college application if you don’t remember to mention it. This document will be an extremely useful resource as you fill out your activity summary for colleges. Plus, it could give you some ideas for a great college application essay!

By following these tips, you’ll ensure you stand out and make a positive impression—with or without ACT/SAT scores.

Final Thoughts: The Importance of Extracurriculars and GPA in a Test-Optional/Test-Blind World

As you apply to colleges in a test-optional/test-blind world, other components of your application become more important to colleges. They will more closely evaluate your strength of schedule, GPA, and extracurricular participation. Your AP/IB test scores will likely rise in importance too.

Challenge yourself with rigorous classes, and use solid study habits to excel. Join extracurricular activities that align with your talents, passions, interests, and goals. Find ways to contribute, lead, and gain recognition and honors in these areas. At the same time, take the ACT/SAT. Then, be strategic about which schools you do or do not send your scores to. (Unless the school requires scores or is test-blind; you don’t have a choice in those cases.)

For college applicants, test-blind/test-optional policies may be a good thing! The application process shifts from focusing on one big, intimidating test to focusing on the trajectory of your entire high school career. With the tips in this guide, you can build a high school career that helps you stand out—no test scores needed!

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