Is Test Prep Necessary in a Test-Optional World?

Is Test Prep Necessary in a Test-Optional World?

Chances are that few letters strike more fear into your child’s heart than ACT or SAT.

For decades, these standardized tests have played the role of gatekeeper in college admissions, leading to an increase in the role of the test prep industry.

The pandemic has been largely blamed for the shift to test-optional by many colleges, but in reality, the movement has been a long time coming.

Colleges are acutely aware of the problems with standardized tests, even though a combination of test scores and grades offers the best indication of student performance in the first year of college.

The test prep industry isn’t going anywhere, and test prep companies continue to offer a valuable service.

Tutoring Industry Trends 

In the past, test prep tutoring was as simple as showing up to a Saturday morning class for a few weeks before the SAT or ACT. That has changed.

Even before the pandemic, test prep books were being traded in for more high-tech solutions, targeted at students who want to attend elite universities.

Moving Online

Since the first days of Skype, test prep tutoring companies looked at the potential of tutoring from afar. Now with options like Zoom and custom platforms, practically every test prep company offers courses online.

These are much easier to attend than having to drive across town, can be done anywhere, and still allow small groups to participate together.

Elite Admissions

While there may be a lot of democratization in access to test prep companies, they are still focused on elite admissions. While the entire University of California system is now test-optional, that doesn’t mean that tests won’t be considered.

Instead, students will still find that a great test score can add to their admissions chances; because of this, students wanting to apply to competitive universities will still need high test scores.

How Do Test Prep Companies Work?

Unlike test prep books, which work through a more methodical curriculum, a good test prep tutor will learn your child’s strengths and weaknesses, and approach the exam appropriately.

This means focusing on building skills in weaknesses in the weeks leading up to the exam, but also providing coaching on ideal test-taking strategies.

It is often said, both by those who support and denounce standardized exams, that they can be prepared for by having some level of familiarity with the test.

Standardized testing is still a psychological exercise, so good tutors will help build confidence. This includes focusing on your child’s strengths closer to the exam to help them see testing as an opportunity to add to their admissions profile rather than a wall to be hurdled.

New Business Opportunities in the Test Prep Industry

Tests should only be viewed as optional if actually taking the test is a burden, and that doesn’t mean simply not wanting to study for it. Because of this, there are opportunities to be had in the test prep industry.

Move Towards One-on-One

The move towards one-on-one tutoring will be crucial, as large classes simply aren’t going to cut it anymore. This has a number of consequences.

First, students can expect that their time with a tutor will be better spent focused on them; only a few hours of test prep, along with some time spent studying later, will be much more impactful for the typical student. 

Second, tutoring rates will likely increase. After all, tutors only have so many hours each day, and many tutors, especially those with great test prep reviews online, regard themselves as professionals. However, you’re going to get a lot out of what you pay for.

Subject Test Specific

Additionally, subject test specific tutoring will become even more important, especially with the discontinuation of the SAT Subject Exams. That means that, for many students around the country, Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams will be vital, and these exams are often more difficult than their SAT Subject counterparts.

Elite universities will want to see them as proof that an A really is an A in a given class.

Meanwhile, as the number of students studying at foreign universities continues to rise, those universities still rely heavily on both SAT/ACT and subject exam scores. For anyone wanting to go to Oxbridge or St. Andrews, test-optional admissions simply don’t exist.

Why Is Test Prep Important?

For the right student, test-optional is a possibility. Students not planning to attend elite universities, those from first-generation or lower-income families, or those with severe anxiety may well find that testing does more harm than good, or at least doesn’t add value to their application. However, some groups absolutely should consider taking either the SAT or ACT. 

The numbers on this are a bit of a mixed bag. With de facto permission to not submit scores, many students are choosing not to do so. This is especially true among students from disadvantaged communities, who have been applying to elite universities at a much higher rate than in the past. However, for many students, tests are still important and can be vital in not only gaining admission, but also getting scholarship money.

Early Admissions

Students considering early admissions, especially early admissions at selective schools, should know that universities have been more favorable in admitting students who submit test scores.

The actual numbers can be pretty convincing: the University of Pennsylvania admitted students who submitted a test score at a rate more than 50% higher than that of those who did not. That said, early admissions is already viewed by some as more biased towards high-achieving students who already perform well on exams, but those numbers still are worth noting.

Merit Aid and Athletics Scholarships

Finally, those who wish to be considered for either merit-based or athletics scholarships will still likely benefit from test prep tutoring; while plenty of attention has been given to the role of tests in admissions, very little scrutiny has fallen on scholarships.

As a result, many colleges still take test scores into account for these awards.

While no one can tell if standardized tests will continue to be required for admissions at certain schools, for many students, they are still an important part of their application.

Test prep companies provide a valuable tool in preparing students, even as their clientele becomes increasingly focused on elite admissions or non-need-based sources of college financing.






Kevin Newton

After pursuing his dream master's degree at the University of London, Kevin Newton found himself spending as much time helping friends find ways to pursue degrees in Europe as he did working. To that end, he founded An Education Abroad to help other American high school students realize the advantages of earning degrees in Europe. To learn more, follow him on Twitter @BA_abroad or visit