Real Talk Podcast: Navigating the Tough Obstacles around College Applications

June 23, 2022
real talk with susan and kristina podcast

In this episode of Real Talk, KJK Student Defense Attorneys Susan Stone and Kristina Supler are joined by Davida Amkraut, a College Consultant. They discuss test optional and test free methods of the college application process.  The conversation includes the advantages and disadvantages of test-optional and test blind college applications, the unspoken rules of navigating the obstacles of the college application process, and the best choices students can make to position themselves to build a stellar college application. 

Links Mentioned In the Show:


Show Notes:

  • The drastic change on the college admission process caused by the pandemic (01:11)
  • Test optional versus test free: 2 terms that every American college applicant needs to know (02:12) 
  • Why some colleges are reinstating test scores in their admission process, while the UC system and the Cal State system are maintaining  test free admission to address discrepancy (03:31)
  • Using the Common Data Set tool to determine whether or not you should submit your SAT scores to the college or university that you’re applying for. (05:04)
  • An unofficial list of universities that actually rely heavily on test scores of applicants (06:08)
  • Why it is recommended for applicants to still take the ACT and SATs even if it’s only the online simulation (08:22)
  • When you should take the ACT over the SATs (08:56)
  • Why taking the SATs is better for those who aren’t confident in science (09:34)
  • Digital SATs and why the college board is favoring this change as opposed to the paper and pen version (10:15)
  • Controversy surrounding the shift to a digital SAT from the traditional testing (11:15)
  • How students who opt for test free when applying to college fare among applicants who disclose their test scores (12:42)
  • Why Advanced Placement (AP) classes are generally more advantageous than International Baccalaureate (IB) classes for college applicants (13:26)
  • How meaningful extracurricular activities like sports can give your application a boost (14:26)
  • Passion and authenticity are essential to becoming well-rounded students (16:42)



Kristina Supler: Today’s topic is the changing landscape with regard to standardized testing. We’re here with Davida Amkraut who works with students on all aspects of the college application process. And for our listeners, you probably recognize Davida. She’s been a guest before on Real Talk with Susan and Kristina. 

Kristina Supler: Davida, we’re so pleased to have you back today 

Susan Stone: and you know what Davida, since you’ve moved, it’s really fun seeing you on screen. We’ve really missed having you. So welcome back to our podcast. 

Davida Amkraut: Thank you so much for having me again. It’s a pleasure to be here. 

Susan Stone: There’s been a lot of changes with regard to the SAT and ACT. Can you get our listeners up to date? What are the hot issues and changes? And Just helpful tips that our listeners need to know for the, would it be rising juniors that really should pay attention or rising? Seniors or both. 

Davida Amkraut: I would say both. And I say that since the pandemic, there has been huge shifts in the college admission process, largely because a huge population of the students were unable to test safely for their application season. Which led to many, many schools going test optional for the years following the pandemic. And that trend, some thought was going to be temporary.

Davida Amkraut: And that, as soon as that, it was safe enough to test, test centers would open and colleges would revert back to their testing policies and things would just continue as normal. What we’re seeing in the college admission world is that in fact, many schools are keeping that test optional. 

Kristina Supler: Let me interrupt you.

Kristina Supler: I apologize. But just for our listeners who are just new to the college journey with their children. Explain what it means for being test optional. 

Susan Stone: Good question. 

Davida Amkraut: Okay. So there are actually two different terms that our American applicants should know. The first one is test optional, which means that the student has the option to have their test scores considered. That means that they are able to include them in their application. If they want to. And they’re also able to say no, this test score is not reflective of my academic potential and I don’t want schools to have access to my scores. That’s one option. There is also what we call the test blind or test free which has also taken off, which means that students don’t have any option to submit scores.

Davida Amkraut: They are, they are not going to be reviewed. And the University of California system and the Cal State system have now extended their test blind policy for a few more years, 

Susan Stone: but you know what Davida,. I just have to talk to you about this because it appears. I just read an article to prepare for this podcast that the UC system has done a study and they actually think that they might consider going back to tests because they’re finding that the overall caliber of students is lower and that the SATs are a good predictor of success. Have you read that study? . 

Davida Amkraut: Well, there are a bunch of schools that are saying that, yes, this test is a predictor. MIT is one of those schools that actually has gone back to requiring test scores. They are saying that that helps them really understand the readiness of their students.

Davida Amkraut: I think it really depends on who you’re talking to. I think the real reason the UC system and the Cal State system went test blind is because of the equity issue. Because a lot of their population, there’s a huge discrepancy between who can afford test prep and who can’t. And the accessibility is not there for a lot of their population.

Davida Amkraut: So that is one reason why that is such a big movement in the California area. Is that, and it’s 

Susan Stone: Can it stay that way. I mean, am I accurate in what I read about the UC system and the data that’s come out of this decision? If you read that? 

Davida Amkraut: Yeah, they’ve committed though. They have committed to the next year or two years to being test blind.

Davida Amkraut: So they are not switching over any time soon in the next couple of cycles, 

Susan Stone: If the test optional. Is it fair to say that for those schools that are test optional, that only students who get the 35 or 36. Or is the SAT still out of 1600 are going to submit their scores because, so it’s sort of ridiculous. You’re only going to see top scores. 

Kristina Supler: And I would think an average score on the sat or act those students aren’t going to submit it. Right. I mean, tell us what you see in your experience. 

Davida Amkraut: So what you want most, what most families do and what most schools suggests and what most counselors suggests is that you go on the tool called a Common Data Set, which is something that colleges put out. They’re required to put this out. And you go, and you look at the average SAT that of kids that were accepted to that said university or the average ACT and they will give you, the average.

Davida Amkraut: And then you look, if your scores fall within that average, you should submit your scores. If they fall below the average, then that’s your cue not to submit scores. 

Kristina Supler: Isn’t it? Isn’t that a flag to the admissions officers to dismiss and score. It’s probably below our average range. 

Davida Amkraut: Yeah, they’ll say that’s below the average or it could also be that they couldn’t test or there were other extenuating circumstances or that a student has test anxiety and they just started purchasing 

Kristina Supler: Are they really having an open mind though, too, like the variability as to why students might not submit other than having a low score. Is that true? 

Davida Amkraut: Well, I can speak to Johns Hopkins. So here, if you want some real data and Johns Hopkins is a very selective school or in the college world, we call it a highly rejective school.

Davida Amkraut: They had half of their applicants in 2020 applied without test scores. Half of those admitted students came from the non submitter group. They accepted has without scores. Colgate the same thing. So it really depends on the school. Some schools are really, really test optional, which means that they do a holistic review. And some schools say they’re test optional, but they prefer looking at scores, right.

Davida Amkraut: They, like a school at Case Western reserve, they love scores, your, they love scores. And to them, they’re very data driven school. And that’s the word on the street. If you’re applying to a school like Case. You’re going to send, you need to submit scores. So it really depends on the institution.

Davida Amkraut: I would say another school that is pretty authentically test-optional is Tufts. They sort of have the same statistics as Johns Hopkins. So it really, it’s very, school-by-school a lot of schools, as you can imagine, don’t really divulge all this data.

Davida Amkraut: Because maybe they don’t want to, but the schools that we have information on, we can see that half of the kids who do apply test optional are getting in test optional. My son is an example. He applied to all his schools test optional. He’s a great student. He did terribly on his ACTs and that three hour test, I just didn’t feel was a reflective of his potential.

Davida Amkraut: And he got it to every single school he applied to. With distinguishment with, so I would say that scores are important, but you don’t need them to set yourself apart in the admission process. 

Kristina Supler: Sounds like you navigated him.

Davida Amkraut: Well, yeah, he did great 

Susan Stone: Davida before we transitioned to our next topic.

Susan Stone: Cause I do want to leave space for what’s coming for our listeners. Ultimately as someone in your position who shephards students through the process, do you still recommend that a student take a standardized test? If so, which one? And what are the differences? 

Davida Amkraut: Okay. So I definitely recommend they give it a shot.

Davida Amkraut: Right? I definitely recommend that. Then you don’t have the should have, could have, would have, right. We, we never wanted the college admission process for there to be a doubt. Oh, I wish I would have at least tried to take that test. Maybe that would have, made the difference.

Davida Amkraut: Take the test, try it out, try out both the act and the SATs. You don’t even need to try them out in a real life situation. You can go online and you can sit for a test and then self in, and then you can then self score your yourself. And you can see which tests you’ve done better on. 

Davida Amkraut: So the ACT versus the SAT is, oh, you know, a long standing difference. Act is notoriously known. If you are a fast test taker, which means that you can work well under pressure. That is the test for you. Right. It’s a time task and it moves very, very quickly. And also as a test that doesn’t necessarily test so much your analytical skills, but it tests, whether or not you can read for comprehension, if that makes sense.

Susan Stone: Like an aptitude test, correct? 

Davida Amkraut: Aptitude test 

Davida Amkraut: Aptitude test like the LSAT yeah.

Davida Amkraut: Correct. Correct. And also the ACT has a whole science section, which the SAT doesn’t have. So if you’re not, uh, like if you’re not loving science, probably, that might be a sign for you to switch over to the SATs 

Susan Stone: science section. Really a reading 

Davida Amkraut: section. It’s an interpreting more of data and graphs and information like that.

Davida Amkraut: And if that’s not your strong point, so some kids struggle with that also in a time situation, you might need that more time. I can move on to the sat, but. With the caveat that this whole sat is switching over to a digital format, right? 

Davida Amkraut: Switching over to a digital format for our children, our students who are now current ninth graders. So if you have a child who is a current ninth grader, by the time they are taking tests in their junior and senior year, they are not no longer going to have a paper to pen edition. They are going to be completely digital.

Davida Amkraut: The test will not be done at home. It will be done at a testing center. The college board is really pushing for it to be done in schools, not at testing centers and also during the day, so that schools could administer these these tests during the school day. 

Davida Amkraut: The college board thinks that this is a great movement. And that it will eliminate a lot of things that were difficult with the paper to pen issue like shipping, like finding proctors, things like that. Many people in the test optional world who like really favor test optional, just say, this is a repackaging of a tool that is a two to three hour test. That is really not predictive of how a student is going to behave or learn in four years.

Davida Amkraut: So. It’s like again, and with everything there are debates and there are positives and there are negatives. Some students don’t really work so well without paper to pen. Some students might not have some schools might not have access to enough internet to have these tests really support what they need to do in their schools.

Davida Amkraut: So. It’s going to be an interesting shift. And I think that your guess is as good as mine. Nobody really knows how it’s going to take off. The first US debut of this will be in the PSA Ts in October of 2023. And then in 2024, the SAT is going completely digital. 

Susan Stone: So basically my kids who are a little older, my last one is a sophomore rising junior won’t be impacted. But Christina, yeah, this is your future.

Kristina Supler: It was really interesting to see the impact of COVID on college admissions and visits and the testing. And I think as we continue on the changes are only going to continue. I’m wondering for students who elect not to take standardized tests for whatever reason, right?

Kristina Supler: No judgment or who don’t submit their scores. How do those students really stand out from the crowd of thousands and thousands of applicants to, to have their application pop? 

Davida Amkraut: Right. So I like to think of the college admission process or the application as a stool. And you have different legs that support the seat of the stool.

Davida Amkraut: So you have one leg is the rigor of curriculum that your child has taken advantage of, right? The school that they’re applying to get to school profile, which says how many APs are offered, how many IBs are offered, what kind of scores those students have, whatever it is.

Davida Amkraut: There’s a school profile in the context of the school that your child attends, is he or she are they taking advantage of the rigor? Right? Is there, and 

Susan Stone: I just wanted to run because I think this is important. You touched on it. Do colleges care. Cause I’ve heard many lectures on this aP v IB. 

Davida Amkraut: So I will say some colleges prefer AP. I will say there are some I have had a lot of surprises with students who are very similar profile, but if they’re an IB student versus an AP student, my AP students somehow always seem to have the advantage. That’s my little sample. Like, I don’t want to say that that’s gospel, but that sort of, the trend that I notice but 

Susan Stone: you know what, that’s consistent with the school that my daughter attends that they chose to stay AP and they rejected IB because they noticed that you’re a leg down from the AP kids.

Davida Amkraut: Right. And I think also the curriculum for the IB is way more demanding and hard for schools to support. Right. And that’s just also another piece to it. So I would say that one leg of the stool is that rigor curriculum. Another leg of the stool is your extracurricular activity.

Davida Amkraut: What are the meaningful things that you’re doing outside of the classroom. And when I say meaningful that aside from just sports. Right. Well, sports is a huge thing. I had a girl who was an equestrian and she literally had two activities cause there was no room in her day for another activity. If you’re writing and you’re, you know, working in the stables, that’s about all you have.

Davida Amkraut: When I say a meaningful activity, I’m saying that you don’t belong to a club and you go once or twice. Right. Meaningful is that you are either assuming a leadership position you’re seeing growth, whatever it looks like for each student. And I’m not going to argue, I’m not going to sit here and say that everybody has to be a president of a club.

Davida Amkraut: And I think that’s completely wrong because if we had a class filled with just presidents, it would be a terrible class because 

Susan Stone: I want to make a caveat. And I want to see if you would agree with this. That when I went to a lecture once at a college on the admissions process. And basically what they said is, look, we have to fill our orchestra.

Susan Stone: We have to fill our athletic teams. We have to fill our theater department. So let’s say you have a student who is, I’m going to use equestrian, but they don’t have a equestrian team. They might be more interested in that tuba player because they need a tuba player. Do you agree with that or disagree?

Davida Amkraut: Totally agree with that. And I would imagine that that an equestrian probably is not going to apply to a school that doesn’t have some sort of riding club or team. That’s what I’m learning, but 

Susan Stone: that’s something that I feel very grateful in terms of the college planning process is that if you have a student who may want a broader college, that does not have an equestrian, then you say to that student in high school, you know, we that’s great.

Susan Stone: You want to do this, but you have to think about if you want to get into a different college what those colleges are looking for. 

Davida Amkraut: Correct. And I also think for those students who, who like have that one interest, you can find things within your school day to do that sort of extends beyond the stables.

Davida Amkraut: So I do think that colleges are looking for diversity, not only in ethnicity and race. They’re also looking at diversity of interest as well. They want to see like the sort of well-rounded student. I also stress to my S my clients. You need to do what you love. You should not do something just because you think it’s going to get you into college.

Davida Amkraut: You have to still live your most authentic self. And I think that is really an important lesson for our youth. I mean, live your authentic self, but challenge yourself at the same time by joining new things. And that there’s such a balance, strike that balance, but do it for the right reasons.

Susan Stone: I’m going to give you one last question. And we will have to schedule you back cause we are not done with you, Davida. 

Susan Stone: Do standardized test scores. Look, college is really expensive. Does it have any impact on scholarships? 

Davida Amkraut: It used to be used as a metric to decide for merit pre pandemic.

Davida Amkraut: They used to look at those SAT scores and these ACT scores and say, okay, I’m going to give this kid money. That has all shifted since the pandemic. And if schools are not, some schools might be using still the ACT and SATs, but most schools have migrated away from that in terms of their metrics. 

Susan Stone: Oh, my gosh, 

Kristina Supler: Davida, thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been really wonderful chatting with you and again, such invaluable information for our listeners. So we’ll have to do this again. 

Davida Amkraut: All right. The pleasure was all mine, ladies.