Q&A with Jennifer Jessie (@jennthetutor)
Jennifer Jessie, aka “Jenn The Tutor,” is a tutor and college admissions consultant. She has a private practice and also hosts pro-bono SAT/ACT classes and groups. During the pandemic, she established the College Admissions Support group, a space where students can come together to work on their applications while providing emotional support to one another.
Jennifer’s ultimate goal is to reduce the barriers to college admissions, creating a more equitable system to ensure students who are underrepresented on college campuses have more opportunities.
Educational Endeavors: Your Twitter handle says you’re “jennthetutor” but the tutoring for you isn’t just about helping students prep for standardized tests.
Jennifer Jessie: I am laughing at this question. I decided to go with “Jenn The Tutor” when I started my business, thinking it would be all-encompassing for the work I do. And yet, SAT/ACT test prep is now a small fraction. Every day I wonder if I should change the name, it doesn’t really represent me anymore.
Students think the SAT is one of the most important parts of their admissions profile. Yet, many admissions officers look at college applications holistically. Transcripts, what classes are being taken (class rigor), non-academic factors (aka non-cognitive factors), what a student brings to the table are all considered. My job is to address all the moving parts.
During the pandemic, I began to focus more on the mental aspect of college admissions because I felt it was what students needed. That’s why I created the College Admissions Support Group. I realized that a student can be successful in admissions if the SAT score is lower than I expect. However, their mental health impacts every other part of the application, from their grades to the extracurriculars they choose to participate in, to their relationships with their teachers. If a student’s mental health or self-confidence is impacted, they may not recover.
EE: The pandemic has put a lot of different aspects of school and admissions in flux. What have you seen? How have students been affected?
JJ: One thing I’ve witnessed is students feel increasingly disconnected from their counselors. Our school counselors, who were already overworked, were asked to take on more responsibilities during the pandemic and students have less time to build a relationship with their counselors as a result.
That had a huge impact on students who are navigating college on their own or with few resources. Counselors help students identify the right advanced classes for them, help students craft the college list, identify extracurricular/service opportunities, and make students aware of scholarships.
When I realized many students did not have access to their counselors, I increased the number of pro-bono hours I had on my book. I was able to take on about 15 students pro-bono last year. I got to collaborate with a lot of amazing counselors, and I learned the best way to utilize them during a pandemic as a result.
For the students I work with, I train them to be strategic so we maximize the limited time they have with their counselor. I make my students aware they need to be prepared, have their questions thought out in advance as much as possible, do their research, and do quick/frequent drop-ins so the relationship between student and counselor remains strong even if the counselor can’t see them as frequently.
We are also combating the spread of misinformation around admissions during the pandemic. There is a lot more misinformation spreading because students are now turning to social media rather than their school counselors to get information and the information is not always correct.
I have to train students to verify all information with admissions and enrollment professionals at the colleges they are applying to during their admissions cycle and trust what they have to say over someone on YouTube or TikTok.
EE: Lots of other stuff has been going on in students’ lives as well, obviously…
JJ: A pandemic is not the only thing students have gone through since March 2020. They’ve gone through a pandemic, a reckoning with race, re-reckoning with race via the CRT debate, hate crimes, AND an insurrection since March 2020. Students have gone through a lot in the last two years, most of it non-academic.
We saw a move to increase the access to advanced class offerings for students historically and systemically excluded, and then a backlash to seeing these classes diversified. No one addressed the climate of these environments before diversifying them. One student was told they only earned their spot and were only accepted into a certain college because “George Floyd and Breonna Taylor died.” Most of my students of color have similar experiences of feeling othered or not wanted. That’s a lot for a student to take on.
The rise in political polarization does not just show up in our society, we also see this tension in the classroom. Students don’t know whether they can fully be themselves in the classroom or speak freely.
They have the same reservations about their applications. Students question what can and cannot go on an application, what topics are/are not off limits, whether they are going too far to express themselves in college applications or not far enough. They feel pressured to sell their trauma for admissions and especially scholarships, to expose themselves in order to appear vulnerable.
I have to find a balance between helping a student unpack and try to wrap their head around their lives during this tumultuous period, giving them space to process/explore what happened, AND reminding them that they should not feel pressured to expose everything for the sake of admissions/scholarships.
EE: Have there been any positives for students?
JJ: One obvious positive, test-optional policies spread and took hold across the country. Most students weren’t aware that colleges had test-optional policies before the pandemic. In Virginia, we’ve had test-optional colleges since 2007, but many of my students did not know those policies existed and did not use them.
Many still have doubts about applying without an SAT/ACT score, but most know someone who was admitted last year who applied without test scores. As that population of admitted test-optional students grows, we will see more confidence in applying without test scores.
My students in the 2020-2021 cycle were also more willing to take risks. Many enrolled and are now successful at colleges they would have never considered applying to if the SAT/ACT score requirement was in place.
EE: One of my personal theories is that many people’s perceptions of the SAT/ACT and college admissions are fixed in amber from the time they experienced them for themselves. When I recently retook the SAT as an adult it seemed like a very different test to me than what I recalled from (cough) 35 years ago. How has the test changed over the years? What does it test now?
JJ: The 2016 SAT redesign was a significant shift.
The writing/grammar section is the only straightforward section in my experience. The move away from memorizing vocabulary words to understanding words in the context of a passage was a welcome shift.
All of a sudden, the math word problems felt like riddles. If you look at a 2014 or 2015 SAT math section and a 2016 math section you see the shift from basic word problems to word problems that are unnecessarily complex. My favorite example is practice test 1, section 3 (no calculator), problem 7. “The formula above gives monthly payment m needed to pay off a loan of P dollars at r percent annual interest over N months. Which of the following gives P in terms of m, r, and N.” That is a simple problem that is buried under complex language/concepts. If you are a teenager and you know how to redistribute variables in an equation but you are unfamiliar with loans, you may get that problem wrong.
The College Board also added a no calculator section. Most students use calculators throughout their high school career, they have calculators on their phones and will use calculators in college. It’s confusing why we need a no-calculator section.
The reading section also became denser. All of a sudden, students were being asked not only to answer questions but also justify it with a line in the text and do that two times per passage but are only given 65 minutes to do that.
A student who does well on the SAT is a student who is taught to that test. Students who have mastered concepts can still fall into College Board traps and be led away from the right answer.
In particular, I found students with testing anxiety, students who have reading disabilities or ADHD, students that need read-aloud accommodations or double time/time-and-a-half accommodations, students whose first language was not English, and students who don’t have a test-prep tutor to guide them through how to take the test were impacted the most by the 2016 redesign and not in a good way. Many of those students, even after test prep, tend to end up with a score lower than what I would expect. A score that doesn’t reflect their academic capabilities.
EE: If someone scores well on the SAT, what do they know? What can they do? How does this relate to what they may experience in college?
JJ: They know how to take the SAT. They usually do not retain that knowledge after the test.
The one thing I see a lot of SAT tutors say in defense of the SAT is, “I teach my students life skills. They become better because they learn how to work hard, set a goal and meet it.” To which I respond, is the SAT the only way we can teach students how to work hard, set a goal, and meet it? I don’t think students need the SAT to teach them this life skill.
EE: Even though part of your work portfolio is tutoring students on standardized admissions tests, you’re an advocate of test optional admissions policies. Why? How will students and families benefit?
JJ: How can I teach students how to manipulate a test and still believe in it?
I used to buy into the idea that this test presents opportunities. But then I read the research on how the test was developed, how questions are selected, and the different ways College Board and ACT deliberately develop answers to trick students into getting a question wrong.
I realized the deck was stacked and that there is a statistically predictable pattern that will always tell us who will do well and who will have a score that doesn’t make them competitive for admissions. I noticed the students who are underrepresented on college campuses ALSO happen to be the students who don’t do well on the SAT/ACT.
I want my students and families to be empowered to make the right decision for them. To say, “I think this test reflects me and my academic capabilities well” OR opt-out and say, “my performance in the classroom tells you what you need to know about my academic capabilities.”
I don’t see the harm in giving students one less thing to worry about when it comes to admissions.
EE: And where do you stand on eliminating the use of standardized admissions tests altogether?
JJ: It’s time to eliminate it. If you can examine a student test-optional, then you can examine them test-free.
Most of the students who do well on the test do well in the classroom. The students who don’t do well in the classroom but do well on the test tend to believe that they can overcome this deficit with a good test score, but I find that most admissions officers do not let a test on one day make up for a perceived grade deficit. The test is giving those students false hope.
Also, a lot of people are wasting a lot of money thinking this test will give their students an advantage when the SAT/ACT doesn’t always do that.
No one benefits from wasting weeks or months or in some cases years of their life in devotion to improving their SAT/ACT score. I think every teenager can use the time they study for this test in a better way.
EE: What do you say to the argument that eliminating the SAT will disadvantage minority students and make it harder to discover “talent”?
JJ: Who was uplifted and where did they end up going to college? Why do we still have the phrase “predominately white institution” if the SAT was so effective in identifying talent from “disadvantaged minority students?”
The SAT has been around for so long, and yet these campuses seem to have the same diversity numbers year in and out — that is telling.
If the SAT has identified SO MANY talented “disadvantaged minority” students, then where did those students go after taking the test and getting a high score? Either they decided not to enroll in college, which is alarming, or despite their high SAT/ACT score they weren’t able to gain admissions, which proves the test is not as significant to the college admissions process as we think.
Also, when I see these “Let’s keep the test to find ‘talented disadvantaged minority students’” or “The test identifies the ‘diamond in the rough’” arguments, I always notice how comfortable everyone is with creating a discard pile of students who are “the rough.”
In most cases we are talking about less than 10% of “disadvantaged minority students” who get a competitive score. Why are we so comfortable creating a barrier for 90% of “disadvantaged minority students” because 10% may benefit?
I know after working with “disadvantaged minority students” that most of the students who get a competitive score ALSO have competitive grades. They would get into the most competitive colleges with their grades alone. They aren’t harmed by test-free policies. All that would happen if we move to test-free is students get their time back and have more time to focus on school/other activities and waste less money on test-prep.
EE: Another objection I hear is that if we get rid of the test, then grades, class rigor, extracurriculars, service projects, and college recommendations that favor the rich will matter “more.”
JJ: This is the objection that comes up the most.
First, no test-optional advocate I know is opposed to dismantling and deconstructing the system of admissions that overvalues grades, class rigor, extracurriculars, service projects, and college recommendations. We are all aware that the entire deck is stacked. We are all willing to dismantle and deconstruct.
Second, there is no evidence that when a college goes test-optional that other things matter more. I’ve looked at common data sets, I’ve spoken with admissions and enrollment officers. I’ve found no evidence for the claim that when test-optional policies are enacted, other factors are given more scrutiny. Many admissions officers report they examine what is there rather than focus on what ISN’T THERE.
Third, there seems to be this assumption that low-income or “underrepresented minority students” or first-generation students don’t have extracurricular, service, recommendations, etc… and I don’t always find that to be true. I feel like people have monolithic views of what my students experience. My students have good grades, take the hardest classes offered, have extracurriculars they do during the school day or after, have service projects, and tend to do well with college recommendations. The ones that don’t can articulate to colleges why they don’t and most admissions officers understand.
The college admissions offices that penalize my students for not being rich DON’T DESERVE MY STUDENTS. I am glad if they are rejected from elitist institutions. It’s a blessing in disguise.
EE: It seems like there’s increasing momentum behind the push to downgrade the importance of the SAT/ACT to admissions. Breaking out your crystal ball, what do you think the future holds?
JJ: How can we downgrade the importance of something that wasn’t that important to begin with?
I think the idea that the SAT/ACT was important or a deciding factor in admissions is a myth developed by the test-prep industry and test-makers. Test-prep companies used the lack of transparency and confusion in college admissions to develop this myth. I have not found any support for the claim that the SAT/ACT is important.
That being said. I think the current situation allows students to decide if the test is a good fit and I encourage students to try it out 1-2 times, three times at most to see if they can get a SAT/ACT score they are proud of. But I tell them not to waste a lot of time on the SAT/ACT test prep. In my business I cut students off if I don’t see progress and start discussing test-optional.
I don’t think the SAT/ACT will be around for college admissions purposes 5-10 years from now. The SAT subject tests tell us where we are going. A lot of colleges started to make SAT subject tests optional, then eliminated the requirement, and then the SAT put the subject tests to pasture by eliminating them entirely.
The College Board and ACT will fight for a bit and try to convince students the test is relevant, but with the test being eliminated in California for the most part and all those colleges going test-free, it seems like it is only a matter of time before this test is a relic of the past.
The SAT’s days are numbered. Moving the test online won’t save the SAT. College Board has Advanced Placement to fall back on and Big Future, the college search tool. They can also keep selling data to colleges through scholarship search even if students only take the PSAT. I don’t see the PSAT going anywhere for a while, for some reason it’s under the radar.
I am not sure what ACT will do. They don’t have many products to fall back on.
But I think test makers are resourceful, and we do see them starting to sell more SAT/ACT days to schools and pushing to make the SAT/ACT a graduation requirement in some states. I don’t underestimate their ability to find new ways to be relevant.
As for me, I plan to one day build a fire and throw all my SAT and ACT prep books in them. There are better things to do with my time and other ways I can serve students.
Jennifer Jessie can be reached at @jennthetutor on Twitter. Her website is JennTheTutor.com. Jennifer Jessie would like to thank Dinan Elsyad, an alumna of the College Admissions Support Group and current college freshman, and Amily Sylla, a current College Admissions Support group member and high school senior, for providing their student perspectives as she prepared for this interview.