11/14/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

College Testing: Time to Take a Deep Breath

As if the world's financial turmoil isn't enough, many high school students and their parents have the added anxiety of college applications and standardized testing this fall. Fortunately, a new report on the use of those tests may let them all breathe a little easier.

Formally known as the Report of the Commission on the Use of Standardized Tests in Undergraduate Admission, it is injecting much-needed common sense into the discussion of how standardized test scores -- like the SAT and ACT -- are used and interpreted at leading American colleges and universities. Having overseen enrollment and admissions at three well-known universities -- now at the University of Southern California -- I know all too well how fear of those tests has been overblown and how over-reliance on them can distort an applicant's true potential.

The Commission, chaired by the Dean of Admission at Harvard, reached some important conclusions:
  • It "encourages institutions to consider dropping the admission test requirements..." if the test is not proven to result in better admission decisions.
  • It says that "colleges and universities may be better served by admission exams more closely linked to high school curriculum," which "measure knowledge of subject matter covered in high school courses."
  • It "believes that the time has come to end the practice of using 'cutscores', or minimum admission test scores, for merit aid eligibility. The scarcity of aid and the advantages affluent students have in gaining access to preparation for admission tests or pre-tests require us to demand change."

Why does this make common sense? First, the best college admission decisions are based on a student's full academic record, accumulated over many years, and on personal characteristics that are evident over time. No single test can illuminate as much.

When we at USC -- and at many colleges and universities -- read admission files, our primary criteria for admission is the depth and breadth of the applicant's high school curriculum, how well she or he did in those courses, and the individual characteristics and accomplishments that indicate which students will be a good match for our university. And we read those files with a positive result in mind. We look for reasons to admit students, not to deny them.

Second, standardized tests can be a useful addition to a student's application, particularly if a student's high school has relatively few advanced courses and the test reveals a student's competitive positioning to greater advantage. Test scores help us do our work, but they represent a small percentage of our admission decision. And they should never serve as a cut-off or the sole justification for accepting a student.

What does this mean for students and parents? First, relax. Take a deep breath. It's the student's performance in school, and his or her character, over time that matters most - not the performance on a particular test at one moment in time. And this report puts the emphasis back where it belongs.

Second, study hard. What we want to know in the admission process is how well you perform in school on a regular basis.

Third, demonstrate your character. We also want to know whether teachers enjoy teaching you, whether your classmates respect you, and whether you contribute meaningfully to your school and community. Recommendations, leadership positions, and extracurricular activities are important.

Fourth, prepare for whatever standardized tests you do take. This doesn't mean hiring a test preparation company and spending a lot of money. The Commission report suggests that "an overall point increase of between 20 and 30 points on the SAT appears to be standard for test preparation activities." And that's almost meaningless in a complete application. What it does mean is this: study for the test. Buy a review book, take some practice tests which are readily available, and review your relevant class notes.

And here's a tip. The largest test score gain that any student is likely to achieve, with or without a test prep course, most often occurs between the first and the second time the test is taken. So, if your prospective college requires a test, consider taking it twice. Taking it more often is not likely to help.

One of the great things about the United States is the extraordinary number of outstanding colleges and universities that we have. Students come here from around the world to get the best education they can get. The University of Southern California, in fact, now has the largest number of international students of any American university.

American students have an unusual array of world-renowned options, and, in the end, the best school for any particular student is the one that fits best. If the fit is good, students can excel no matter where they are.

So take a deep breath. Work hard. And relax. Colleges are eager to find the best fits, too.

The author is Vice Provost for Enrollment Policy and Management at the University of Southern California.