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We are nearing the final stretch of the 2017-2018 round of university applications to America. Most Colleges released their admissions decisions in late March, and by now students would have had to commit to a particular offer. Some would still be nervously hoping that they get a precious offer from a waitlist – but for the overwhelming majority of students, they know where they will be going next year, for better or worse.

With these results, we at A&J take the data and analyse it to identify what is happening year-on-year to better map out our recommended strategies for the next cycle. Though the formula of exceptional academics, strong demonstrable leadership skills in extracurriculars and a proven commitment to community still remains a winner – there are two points that stand out:

  1. Competition is increasing every single year, with historic low acceptance-rates for colleges across the board;
  2. Standardised testing – e.g. the SAT, SAT II Subject Tests and the ACT – is getting more and more competitive.

Most colleges publish data on the distribution of standardised testing scores earned by successful applicants, and this year’s data only serves to confirm increasing expectations for applicants to the top schools. For example, each of Harvard, Yale and Princeton had at least 25% of successful applicants this cycle score a perfect 1600 on the SAT, with scores of 1480, 1480 and 1460 respectfully being the cut-off point for the lowest quartile of scores.

The reason why standardised testing is getting more competitive is simple: in an applicant pool that is increasing both in terms of absolute numbers as well as in quality, admissions officers need to use every tool in their disposal to differentiate between candidates. The very definition of standardised testing facilitates this – every candidate has to take the same exam and be judged according to the same metrics, which provides a fair-playing field for everyone applying. This is why scores have been inching ever upwards consistently over the past 20 years.

The key takeaway is that this trend is unlikely to tail-off and is definitely unlikely to reverse. As such, it is absolutely crucial for future applicants to treat these exams with respect and prepare properly for them. Even with a stellar extracurricular record, without the basics of strong standardised testing you may not even get past the first round of an admissions process.

As such, we recommend the following:

  1. Firstly, focus on improving rather than just ‘doing’ practice papers. Students need to make sure that they have discipline when preparing for standardised tests and that they set themselves preparation goals. It is key to ensure that any question answered wrongly is analysed and remembered so that mistakes don’t happen twice.
  2. Secondly, students need to give themselves enough time to prepare. Including SAT II Subject Tests, not only is there a fair amount of material to learn and practice, and juggling that alongside school-work and other activities can be harder than it sounds. Preparing early allows you to take the exam ahead of essay-writing season, and ensures that in the worst-case scenario of an underperformance on the day, you have enough time to register for another one and take it again.
  3. Finally, make sure that you have a disciplined routine on test day. We will be exploring this in the next blogpost which applies to all exams but most especially standardised tests, which tend to be long, grueling affairs of endurance as much as preparation.

In short – standardised testing is only going to get more and more important in the upcoming application cycles. Students need to make sure that they know this and get the basics right to ensure that they get the chance to show off their achievements rather than fall at the first hurdle.

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