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Episode Notes

Episode Title: Test Optional: Nitin Jain on How to Navigate College Applications. Now.

Episode summary introduction: Standardized Tests have fallen victim to COVID-19. Over 80% of the Top US Colleges have gone Test Optional, which means they are waiving Standardized Test Scores requirements for Admissions. For now.

Nitin Jain, Co-founder of Oncourse shares his views on how students should handle College Applications without Standardized Tests.

In particular, we discuss the following with him:

  • Role of Standardized Tests in College Admissions
  • What does Test Optional really mean?
  • How should Students approach their college applications?

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • Role of Standardized Tests [3:16]
  • Admissions Officers and Applications w.o Tests [5:54]
  • How should Students Modify their Applications [15:52]
  • Nitin’s Advice to Applicants [21:34]

Our Guest: Nitin Jain,  Co-founder Oncourse, Gurgaon India, focuses on international college applications to US, UK, Canada, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Memorable Quote: “Standardized Test Score is an Indicator of Academic Index.

Episode Transcript: Please visit Episode’s Transcript.


Episode Transcript

Transcript of the episode’s audio.

Venkat  0:10

Standardized Tests like the SAT, ACT for college-bound students are COVID-19 victims. Tests have been canceled multiple times, all over the world, and about 50% of the students registered for the upcoming tests, will not be able to take them.

Over 80% of the Top US Colleges have gone Test Optional, which means they are waiving Standardized Test Scores requirements for Admissions. For now.

Hi! Welcome to College Matters. Alma Matters.

Nitin Jain, Co-founder of Oncourse, a College Counseling Service based in Gurgaon India is back with us.

Nitin shares his views and insights on how student applicants should navigate the college applications in this evolving Test Optional landscape.

Without further ado, let’s hear what Nitin has to say.

Nitin  1:14  

Good. Good morning, Venkat. Good. How are you doing?

Venkat  1:16  

I'm doing well. Thank you.

So, welcome back. Welcome back to our podcast, College Matters. Alma Matters.

It’s great to have you back to talk about something that I think has been very topical for the last few months, and looks like it's going to be around for quite a while.

No, I am not talking about the virus.


It's really it's, it's really what's happening as a result of it though, which is that Colleges are dropping the requirement for standardized tests, at least for the time being, and it's some cases, all together like University of California, and it's not clear whether this movement is going to, you know, spread.

But I thought it'd be very interesting for us to discuss what it means to all the players not having these Standardized Tests. And, you know, from the college point of view from a student point of view, and from a counseling point of view, so I thought it'd be a interesting topic to look at, considering that, at least from you know, most people's perspectives, this has been a pretty big part or component of the admissions process.

So, so, I thought I thought that would be a good sort of discussion to have.

Nitin  2:47  

No, I agree. I agree. This is extremely a very topical issue. I think half the meetings that we are doing currently with students who are looking to apply this year or the next year. One of the first questions they have is the role of standardized testing, given what changes have been prescribed for this year, at least or as a pilot transfer this year to try on this policy going ahead. So I agree with you, in terms of the topic is extremely, extremely topical.

Venkat  3:16  [Role of Standardized Tests]

Yeah, so maybe maybe a good place to start would be to, maybe from your point of view, how, how do you think all these US colleges in particular, how have they been using these tests vis-a-vis student admissions, I mean, what, what do you think, from your vantage point, has been going on, how have they used the SATs and ACTs?

Nitin  3:42  

So, Venkat in the past, and I'm obviously talking of 2019, and before, Well, historically, the standardized tests have always been used as a very strong sort of indicator of your academic index. So it kind of goes in sync with your academic grades.

So what colleges look for is very often a sense of parity between your standardized testing and your grades. And that serves as the first cut benchmark, right? So they want to see, you know, in terms of if your academic scores are in sync with this.

The second thing, which I think has been very important for an admission officer, is to use the standardized test in a way to normalize the difference in grading systems all over the world, right? A Chinese student writing a board exam in Guangzhou and Indian student writing a CBSE exam, how do they evaluate each other, is easiest to give them the same test and then benchmark that score.

 So that was the other way. One of the other things that I feel a standardized test score was used as an indicator was to see about the academic rigor and the preparation of the student to align with let's say, you know, the tougher courses going ahead in college and interview citing the dropout rate for the colleges, just to kind of think that, you know, the overall picture is clear.

So obviously, in that aside, all the sports recruit the coaches use that, because the coaches did not understand the academic, you know, component of every country being very different. So they couldn't assess it. The easiest bit again for them was standardized testing.

And again, for scholarships because they need to compare internationals with the locals and everything. So I think for all of this SAT, ACT was used, I would say almost lending close to a 25 30% weightage in the overall evaluation. Right?

So, so, I think to answer your question, historically, that was the background in my mind, where the SAT or why the SAT was used.

Venkat  5:54  [Admissions Officers and Applications w.o Tests]

Good, I mean, so, so, now now with that out of the picture, you know, the challenge for colleges is how to evaluate all these applications coming from, you know, 100 countries and, you know, all you have are the GPAs and the local GPAs. And if the [high] school is not well known, or there is no prior history with the college, you know, so there's going to be a whole bunch of challenges around it.

So how, how do you think colleges are going to approach it? I mean, what, what do you think? You know, roughly, so basically half 50% of the sort of quantitative stuff is gone, right? It's just gone. So the only thing you have are the GPAs. And, you know, if you count APs and all that, as part of it, APs are somewhat standard. So I guess there is some standard aspect there, but GPAs would be a big determining factor.

So, what is your guess on how all that will go forward?

Nitin  7:05  

Yeah. So I think I think before we come to address that, I think we need to rewind a little bit in terms of what is the background and the bias against standardized testing to begin with.

I think this is something there's been a big debate which has been ongoing for a while where, you know, there there are huge linkages about the fact that certain racial groups within the US especially, or let's say, the more affluent families where the parents level of income is higher, usually have done better in standardized testing, more to do with, you know, also the amount of tutor support that they could get and, and just the resources that they could use etcetera.

I think what COVID has done is accelerated the move. It's almost become insensitive today, to not be adopting that policy. So basically, in trying to be fair across the board, part of the reason is always to, you know, the debate that has been going on for such a long time to bring it back and sort of align. So that's the slight background as to why standardized testing is being looked to remove or being done away with.

Venkat  8:12  

Right. Fair enough. Fair enough.

Nitin  8:14  

Keep keeping that background, I think the next part, important to understand is, what is really the policy colleges have adopted. And I think what we need to discern in there is the test optionality effect. And do they really, really mean when they say it's test optional?

So in that context,  you know, there's been a classic differentiation of SAT not required across four categories, right.

So the most famous one being test optional, right. And in contrast to being test blind, or test flexible, or test conditional.

Now, if you look at all of these four, majority of the colleges are what is called test optional, which they say Listen, if you have a test score, send it to us, we look at it. In contrast to being test blind, where only maybe my guess is one to 2%, or test blind, which says that even if you have a test score, we will not be looking at so many schools like Northeastern etcetera, they said that listen, it doesn't come in as a part of our evaluation at all.

While some schools like Brandeis, NYU historically have been test flexible, so they'll give you okay, if you don't have a standardized test score, maybe you can take three Subject Tests, maybe you can give four APs. So there is a flexibility in the standardized testing, other than your grades.

And now, a couple of schools have also become test conditional where they say if your GPA is above this much, if you're a certain percentage above, let's say you're in the top 10 percentile, etc, then you don't need a standardized test score.

So I think keeping this in mind and knowing and understanding fully well that most colleges have turned out to be what is test optional, means they will still look at it if you have it. Right? So, So in a way, that is the historic, the background, which I wanted you to look at before we analyze your specific question. And my apologies for such a long background.

Venkat  10:16  

No, no, this is awesome. So awesome. Good context. And I think, good that you framed the different aspects of, you know, looking at tests. So, so yeah, so the big question...

Nitin  10:30  

Yeah. Now I could come, come to your question, which is what who, what do we really look at? Right, like in terms of the, what does the admission officer look at and let's first try and address it more from an admission officers perspective as well.

Yeah, that I think they are looking for more holistic applications clearly. When they say no standardized test, I think and I could be wrong, they will be far more reliance on academic grades, and consistency, starting from the junior classes. So it's not only you know your your the last two years of school, which we'll have a look, they will look at your transcript, starting from ninth grade look at how rigorous the courses you've taken. Right and and how consistently your academic journey has been.

This year, the GPAs are pretty much all over the map, as you know, but I think a consistent academic record will be demonstrated, I think class rank as a tool other than rigor will be extremely important, because that, in a way, normalizes the vagaries of GPA. Right? And this will be an important consideration, at least, and at least will be one important consideration point for them.

The other part that I think the admission officer will value a lot more this year is the letter of recommendation. I know it's been very very, you know, often not given the due importance, but the sanctity of an educational institution has been established also by the not only by the kind of grades students get eventually, but by their recommendation, the counselor and the academic coordinator and the teachers do give. And, and that's where I feel there will be a larger sort of context they will be able to lend to a student's application, both in terms of, you know, the softer qualities, the academic rigor ability, also qualifying, why they have not been able to take the standardized test if they haven't been right.

So, please do understand, that some of the students will use this to their advantage to say that we wanted to take the test but we couldn't take [the test]. That said that never registered for the test. Right. So I think, I think the counselor always gets an alert when a student registers for the test and the test is canceled. I think somewhere that whole qualification in the letter of recommendation will be extremely material for, you know, the AO to look at. Right?

The other part that again, the admission officer will lend a lot of merit this year is the qualitative aspects and more the softer aspects, Venkat, in terms of, you know, your contribution to your family during these times, how you've impacted the community in more in empathy, and it doesn't again have to be that you invented, you know, the pathway to the next virus, No, right after next vaccine. Sorry.  Yeah, you know, it would be more like how you've done little work for your community, and basically made yourself useful in this entire period.

So I think the AO has a lot at hand, they need to, they need to read a lot more on the application. It can't be just filtered by a robot to say that, you know, cut across this standardized test code, and then let's talk ahead. I think the context of the application will become more important. So that's from the admission officers point.

I don't know if you need any clarification on this or this much is enough. And then we talked about the student.

Venkat  13:56  

Yeah. So, one other question I had about the admissions officers or colleges, when you say test optional will some, will a student who provides a test score benefit, you know, be at an advantage compared to someone who doesn't?

Nitin  14:19  

Right. So I,  my personal sense, and there is no literature available. No, you know, if you have a test score which is favorable from US colleges, previous track record of acceptance of students, it will certainly help you. And I and I think your overall academic index will certainly be strengthened with a test score there.

So, So I think it's better to have than not have [a test score]. Having said that, if it's genuinely, you've been sort of not able to take the test score, I don't think they'll penalize you that much. As long as your academic rigor is well established, and your grades are consistent.

Venkat  14:58  

Sure, sure.

Venkat  15:01  

No, I think, I think basically what you're saying is that the qualitative aspect of the application is weighted, the weightage of qualitative aspect will go up as a result of the strategies of whether it's test optional, or, which is probably most of them. Test blind, it's very clear, they're not going to look at it, but test optional would mean that somehow you have to sort of do better, or in a show off better the qualitative aspects of your application.

Okay, I think I think that's a good, that's a good assessment and a good sort of analysis of the admissions officers challenge, if you will.

Venkat  15:52  [How should Students Modify their Applications]

Now, how does it impact the students? I mean, what, what does it mean for the students

Nitin  15:59  

So, for the student, first and foremost, my advice, and this is coming again from a lot of students whom I'm meeting, they are imagining this to be a passport to kill. So a lot of the students who were not even contemplating going because they have a decent academic record, are suddenly thinking that, you know, lack of test scores opens up a lot more opportunities. But as I covered in the previous instance, it's not as simple as that, that you've, you will still need to kind of have an entire well-rounded application. Just because you don't have a test score does not give you a passport, as I said, right. Also the context of your not being able to engage with a standardized test, at least this year. Right where it's still a pilot across school right will become important as I as I outlined, the counselor will qualify some part of that in the recommendation letter.

The other challenge is the student needs to understand at least for this year, the application needs to be extremely personal. Other than the grades they need to do a personal sort of touch. You know, there is a COVID essay, which is extremely personal to you, which is sort of asking you for how things impacted you. Related to that COVID.

So I think the whole concept of empathy this year will, will outline a lot in the applications. So the students need to be looking out for that.

And lastly, I think they need to kind of do other academic work if they have missed out on the SAT. So for example, we've been telling a lot of our students in this period to do some research work, which could, you know, they probably can't visit the labs, etc. But they can do some secondary research. They can work on existing data and try and work on that. They can take some harder courses in, you know, the senior year. So I think some bit of all of that will be demonstrated as well if they don't have a test score.

Venkat  17:50  

Now, yeah, I was thinking that I was also thinking that in addition to this, you know, some students are just poor test takers. Right? I mean, they may have, they may be good students, they are overall pretty bright. And maybe they you know, don't score well on tests. And if their, if their qualitative aspects are stronger, then they might have a better shot at some of the schools. So selective, selective schools anyway, than they had before. Maybe, maybe not. So I was just wanted to kind of get your thinking around that.

Nitin  18:31  

I, I completely agree that they would have that. And that's, that again brings to the question about how strong your academics have been in the past.

So you know, we did a small, sort of correlation exercise,, when when we do test prep for our students and we have data points for almost about 6- 700 students now in terms of their academic grades and consistency and their ability to negotiate with standardized testing. And very often there isn't a clear co-relation, right? We've, we've seen, we've seen students who are in the top one 2%, but usually struggling on like a 32 ACT, 31 ACT, not able to cross that 1450 SAT score.

So clearly, in instances like those, it will be extremely beneficial for them because their mind is wired differently. They cannot sort of deal with standardized tests well, but otherwise, on academic front, they've been very good and the qualitative aspect is good, they will certainly benefit tremendously, actually. Which probably means that there is a whole lot of additional sort of number of students will come into the pool. Ordinarily, otherwise did not think they were good enough to apply to some of the top schools. And and that is something that may add as a variable that students need to look at.

Venkat  19:50  

Hmm, so definitely, definitely, I think.

So I was talking to the admissions director of UC Santa Barbara On one of our broadcasts, and they received around 110,000 applications, this for this fall. And and they said that they, you know, hired lots of readers for the applications.

And so in cases like this, they are going to read each and every application. And, and so, so the the point being that, you know, whatever you put in front of them, and the qualitative stuff is all going to be processed in some way. And so hopefully, if you do a good job there, you stand to gain.

Nitin  20:41  

right so yeah, but the but the flip side of that is that everybody feels they're in with a chance. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. But, but but because there is no objective parameter on that available. I think everybody has that feeling that listen, Test option means now we're in with a chance, even if we don't have test score, qualitatively everyone tends to believe they've done a lot.

But you and I know what that actually is.

Venkat  21:09  

So then the last part where you come in is, how do you as a counselor, how do you advise students for the application? What kind of strategies are you advocating? And what do you what are you counseling them, as far as applications for the 2021 Fall and beyond?

Nitin  21:34  [Nitin’s Advice to Applicants]

Yeah, so better, I think we have still not formulated a strategy for beyond 2021.

I think we currently sought what we are telling the rising seniors so people who are applying right now yeah, is, is to kind of lend a lot more personal touch to their application, make it more holistic.

If you have had decent academic grades and are rather indifferent. standardized test scores do not showcase that on the application. However, if you can take a final shorter take in terms of the two three options that are still available, we are asking them to go for it. I think because for an international student, we still feel having a test score will be beneficial than not having one. Hmm. Right.

And, and to that extent, however, if there is no time given that they have exams or other things, don't worry about it. And we will then lend the context to why you could not take the standardized test.

But other than that, I think a lot more personalization into the application is what we are using as a theme for this year. Right. And, and, and once this pilot of standardized testing being optional, if it is continues, going ahead, we will obviously have to revamp the entire plan. But for now for students who are in the junior year, we are asking each one of them to go in for the standardized test because we feel most proud have used it for one year, they may or may not sort of continue with it. Some have given the three year pilot already some have done away with it already, but largely every most of the colleges have said that it's a pilot run for one year.

I think eventually how it will unfold, we don't know. But the current juniors, we are not asking them to skip the standardized test.

Venkat  23:22  

Okay, got it.

It also seems to me that extracurriculars are going to increase in importance with you know, without the test scores, I mean, right. Whatever you do, the types of things that help you shine or stand out. I think that that may end up being a big part of the strategy too. Assuming this sticks. I mean, I don't, you're right. We don't know where things are going to go after. I think some of them have decided up to 2022.

Nitin  23:56

That is correct.

Venkat  23:57

After that, we'll see. But, but yeah, at least for the ensuing two years, I think there's going to be a lot of change.

Anything else on this topic that you think is worth sharing or talking about?

Nitin  24:16 

I think my, my, bit of advice to students specially applying this year is don't sort of think too hard about having a good score, not having a score, or not. Identify that every situation is, is unique. And they will evaluate that.

And if you've been genuinely a consistently good student, your letters of recommendations will reflect that. So I don't think you need to worry and be in a panic zone that so many variables have changed.

I think the overall acceptance statistics and that mold would remain similar. So if you were the kind of student who would have gone to a UCLA last year, chances are you will still get in. So I know it's hard for you to kind of evaluate that in context of one big part being removed.

But they, admission officers are very, very smart. I have absolute sort of confidence in their ability to go through an application very properly, like they've done that in the past over many years.

Look at the consistency they have demonstrated over so many years. So I don't think you should feel awkward about not submitting a score or otherwise, and go ahead and complete your application properly. Write some fantastic essays, and I think you'll be in with a chance.

Venkat  25:30  

Fabulous, fabulous. Okay, Nitin, thank you so much.

Nitin  25:36  

Yeah, no, it's been good. It's been a pleasure always to sort of be on this platform, and and talk to students and parents so, so entirely my pleasure.

Venkat  25:46  

Fantastic. Okay, so be safe, take care, and you pick another topic very soon and chat again.

Nitin  25:53

Good luck. Bye.

Venkat  25:54

Thank you. Bye.

Venkat  25:57

Hi again!

Hope you liked this podcast with Nitin Jain of Oncourse on how to deal with College Admissions in a Test Optional world. I really appreciated the holistic view that Nitin presented from the perspective of the Admissions Officers, Students and the Counselors.

For questions to the guest or comments on this podcast, please email podcast at almamatters.io [podcast@almamatters.io] .

Thank you so much for listening to today’s podcast.

Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].

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Till we meet again, take care and be safe.

Thank you!

Summary Keywords

Students, India, College, Mentor, Standardized Tests, Counselors, Counseling, profile, fitment, Singapore, Middle East, Alma Matters, Expectations, Trust, Empathy, Alumni Network, Test Optional, Test Blind, Test Conditional, Test Flexible, Letters of Recommendation, AP, Advanced Placement.

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