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Written By: Scott Webster - Clayborne Owner and College Test Prep Director

Scott Webster, Owner
Clayborne Education, LLC


2020 has been a year of disruption, particularly in the academic space. With schools moving to online learning environments and colleges temporarily dropping standardized testing requirements, what should students focus on in 2021? Before we answer that question, let’s ensure we know what we are talking about.

What does “test-optional” mean?

Many families rejoiced at the news that schools were going test-optional in response to the pandemic – one fewer thing to worry about in the already overwhelming application process! Unfortunately, test-optional does not mean that colleges dismiss standardized test scores. It, in fact, means that should you decide to apply without submitting scores, you will be evaluated on a more holistic basis. If you apply test-optional,  your candidacy will be measured by your GPA, transcript rigor, extracurricular involvement, and essays. 

Why is this important?

For many students, this seems to be a winning scenario! If you struggle with standardized tests but are doing well academically and involved in multiple extracurriculars, test-optional means you can showcase those strengths and avoid the glaring red flag of subpar test performance. The problem? Everyone else applying test-optional.

Schools dropping testing requirements opened the application floodgates, and some schools are reporting up to a 40% increase in the number of applications this Fall! To put that into perspective, consider a hypothetical mid-sized school that typically receives 40,000 applications every year. If, previously, standardized testing benchmarks served as a deterrent to some applicants, this year test-optional policies prompted an influx of between 4,000 and 16,000 additional applicants (read: your competition!).

Considering this further from the vantage of an admissions officer at this school: with thousands of additional applications on your desk competing for the same number of seats from the previous year, how does he or she determine who gets an offer, waitlisted, or axed? Enter the COVID-age GPA dilemma.

Why is GPA not enough to measure a candidate?

Prior to COVID, GPA was a very reliable predictor of success in college. A student with a high GPA over the course of his or her academic career demonstrated aptitude, rigor, discipline, and relative ability. Indeed, we at Clayborne typically would recommend students focus their efforts on bolstering their GPA first, then look to improve their standardized test scores. Enter COVID. Now, with many schools going virtual and the academic year significantly disrupted, GPA as a reporting metric is less reliable. Some schools have gone pass/fail and reports of grade inflation have increased, meaning getting As and Bs in your classes is not as impressive – or even accurate – as before. To be sure, grade inflation is nothing new, and many admission departments are equipped to discern candidacy more holistically, combatting the effects of such inflation. That said, COVID has disrupted GPA as a reliable metric at an unprecedented level. In fact, we at Clayborne have been hearing from a variety of admission sources that standardized test scores are going to be more important than ever as a means to evaluate candidates!

What does this mean for you?

When so many fixtures of the admissions space have been disrupted by COVID, take control of the parameters in which you have agency. You can not change the progression of the virus, admission policies, or whether your school is remote-only or pass/fail. You can, however, focus on two critical areas of your portfolio:


  1. Turn in your assignments on time.
  2. Study for and excel in any assessments that affect your grades.
  3. Take SAT Subject tests in areas of interest and strength.
  4. Take AP Exams in similar subjects.
  5. Prepare for and excel in the SAT or ACT.


  1. Get involved in your community. (volunteering at the local health clinic)
  2. Pursue extracurricular involvement, particularly in areas where you can demonstrate leadership. (captain of the school debate team, treasurer of the school KEY club)
  3. Pursue areas of interest outside the classroom. (certifications in computer science languages, securing an internship at an investment firm)

In summary, do everything you can to reassure an admissions officer or committee that you are an ideal candidate for their school. Don’t leave anything on the table such that an admissions officer scratches his or her head and wonders why you didn’t take advantage of the opportunities in front of you. As it pertains to our original question of which is more important, GPA or Test Scores, the current paradigm seems to emphasize the importance of test scores.

If you have questions or concerns about the PSAT, SAT, or ACT, or the college admissions process, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at www.clayborne.com/contact or 434-260-3180. 

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