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Q&A: Stuart Schmill on MIT’s decision to reinstate the SAT/ACT requirement

Standardized tests help the Institute’s admissions team identify and assess students from all backgrounds, says MIT’s dean of admissions and student financial services.
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Caption: Stuart Schmill is the dean of admissions and student financial services at MIT.
Credits: Image: courtesy of MIT Admissions

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Stuart Schmill
Stuart Schmill is the dean of admissions and student financial services at MIT.
Image: courtesy of MIT Admissions

MIT Admissions announced today that it will reinstate its requirement that applicants submit scores from an SAT or ACT exam.

The Institute suspended its longstanding requirement in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic that prevented most high schoolers from safely taking the exams. However, with the advent of safe, effective pediatric vaccination, the expansion of the free in-school SAT (where most students now take the test), and the introduction of the digital SAT, most prospective students can take them again.

Research conducted by the admissions office shows that the standardized tests are an important factor in assessing the academic preparation of applicants from all backgrounds, according to Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services Stuart Schmill. He says the standardized exams are most helpful for assisting the admissions office in identifying socioeconomically disadvantaged students who are well-prepared for MIT’s challenging education, but who don’t have the opportunity to take advanced coursework, participate in expensive enrichment programs, or otherwise enhance their college applications.

MIT News spoke with Schmill about how his team arrived at its decision, which he also wrote about today on the MIT Admissions blog.

Q: Why is MIT reinstating its SAT/ACT requirement?

A: First, let me talk a bit about why we have an SAT/ACT requirement in the first place. We have a dedicated research and analysis team that regularly studies our process and decisions. One thing they look at is what we need to predict student success at MIT. We want to be confident an applicant has the academic preparation and noncognitive skills (like resilience, conscientiousness, time-management, and so on) to do well in our challenging, fast-paced academic environment.

In short: Our research has shown that, in most cases, we cannot reliably predict students will do well at MIT unless we consider standardized test results alongside grades, coursework, and other factors. These findings are statistically robust and stable over time, and hold when you control for socioeconomic factors and look across demographic groups. And the math component of the testing turns out to be most important.

One reason we think this is true is because of the unusually quantitative orientation of our education, as I explain in more detail in my post. An MIT education combines deeply analytic thinking with creative hands-on problem-solving to prepare students to solve the toughest problems in the world. Our General Institute Requirements demand that all first-years must take (or place out of, through Advanced Standing Examination) two semesters of calculus and two-semesters of calculus-based physics, no matter what field they intend to major in; students who do not place out of physics also take a math diagnostic. In other words, there is no pathway through MIT that does not include a rigorous foundation in mathematics, mediated by many quantitative exams along the way. So, in a way, it is not surprising that the SAT/ACT math exams are predictive of success at MIT; it would be more surprising if they weren't. 

I should emphasize here that we don’t focus only on the tests. In fact, we don’t care about the tests at all beyond the point where they — alongside other factors — help demonstrate preparation for MIT. We don’t prefer perfect scores, and a perfect score isn’t sufficient to say you’ll succeed at MIT, either. However, the tests are something we’ve found we usually need in addition to these other factors in order to demonstrate preparation.  

We are reinstating our requirement in order to be transparent and equitable in our expectations. Our concern is that, without the compelling clarity of a requirement, some well-prepared applicants won’t take the tests, and we won’t have enough information to be confident in their academic readiness when they apply. We believe it will be more equitable — and less anxiety-inducing — if we require all applicants who take the tests to disclose their scores, rather than ask each student to strategically guess whether or not to send them to us.

Of course, we know that some students won’t be able to safely take the tests due to their own specific health conditions or various disasters and disruptions, as was the case before the pandemic. In these cases, we will allow students to explain on their application why they were unable to safely take the exam, and we will not hold the lack of exam against them. We will instead use other factors in their application to assess preparation as best we can, but with one less tool in our kit in their case.  

Q: What do you say to those who argue the tests create structural barriers for socioeconomically disadvantaged and/or underrepresented students?

A: I appreciate this question, which we have kept foremost in our minds as we reviewed our research and policies. MIT Admissions has a strong commitment to diversity, and it is important to us that we minimize unfair barriers to our applicants wherever possible.

However, what we have found is that the way we use the SAT/ACT increases access to MIT for students from these groups relative to other things we can consider. The reason for this is that educational inequality impacts all aspects of a prospective student’s preparation and application, not just test-taking. As I wrote, low-income students, underrepresented students of color, and other disadvantaged populations often do not attend schools that offer advanced coursework (and if they do, they are less likely to be able to take it). They often cannot afford expensive enrichment opportunities, cannot expect lengthy letters of recommendation from their overburdened teachers, or cannot otherwise benefit from this kind of educational capital. Meanwhile, we know that the pandemic was most disruptive to our least-resourced students, who may have had no consistent coursework or grading for nearly two years now. 

I realize this argument may sound counterintuitive to some who have heard that the SAT/ACT exams raise barriers for access, and I don’t want to ignore the challenges with, or limits of, the tests. They are just one tool among many that we use. However, what I think many people outside our profession don’t understand is how unfortunately unequal all aspects of secondary education are in this country. And unlike some other inequalities — like access to fancy internships or expensive extracurriculars — our empirical research shows the SAT/ACT actually do help us figure out if someone will do well at MIT.

It turns out the shortest path for many students to demonstrate sufficient preparation — particularly for students with less access to educational capital — is through the SAT/ACT, because most students can study for these exams using free tools at Khan Academy, but they (usually) can’t force their high school to offer advanced calculus courses, for example. So, the SAT/ACT can actually open the door to MIT for these students, too.

The key thing I hope people understand is that we are using the tests as a crucial tool in the service of our mission, and not for the sake of the tests themselves. If and when we can find better, more equitable tools than the SAT/ACT, we will make changes to our policies and processes, as we did a few years ago when we stopped considering the SAT subject tests. Our creative and dedicated research and analysis team will continue to work hard in this area.  

Q: What do you think the impact of this reinstatement will be on your office and on MIT?

A: My hope is that it will help us recruit, select, and enroll a robustly diverse undergraduate student body that is well-prepared to succeed in our challenging curriculum. At least, when we presented our data and proposal to the Committee on Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid (CUAFA) — the student/faculty/staff policy committee that oversees our work — that is how we defined our goal, and CUAFA unanimously approved our plan on those terms. 

Before the pandemic, considering testing (alongside other factors) helped us expand access to MIT, and we are very proud of the diversity and talent of the undergraduate student body. There is currently no majority race or ethnicity among MIT’s undergraduates. If you look at research published in The New York Times a few years ago, there is more economic diversity and intergenerational mobility at MIT than at comparable institutions; nearly 20 percent of our students are the first-generation in their family to attend college, as I was. We think that if testing helped us do this before the pandemic, it can help us continue to do it now. So, that is how we will evaluate success in the years to come.

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