Ivey Files

February 3, 2016

Taking a Standardized Test? Protect Your Personal Information

Were you under the impression that the College Board and the ACT are primarily in the business of making and administering those standardized tests that drive you batty? 

Actually, their real bread and butter is mining students' personal information and selling it for a lot of money.  They're even being accused taking advantage of loopholes in the very privacy laws that were designed to protect minors.

If you are registering for or taking standardized tests (SAT, ACT, PSAT, AP, etc.), be careful about which information you disclose. They don't always make it blindingly obvious which bits are optional. And don't check any boxes before you read them carefully (including the innocently titled "Student Search Services," which is how much of your data gets collected and sold).

You might assume you can just skip the whole shebang, as more and more selective colleges become test-optional (meaning, you don't have to report an SAT or ACT score in order to apply). But if you are a strong standardized test taker, or you need those tests to compensate for less-than-awesome high school grades, we'd advise you to keep taking the tests and jumping through those hoops. Getting good scores can still benefit you, even in an increasingly test-optional universe. (See chapter 17 in our book for more advice on that.)

But do pay attention to any opportunities, however hidden they may be, to opt out of sharing information that you don't want shared and sold. For example, in a previous blog post we've advised against disclosing your grades, courses, or GPA when registering for the ACT.  And as this article in the Washington Post explains, you do not have to answer the (optional) pre-test questions that are put in front of you on the day of the test. (Because you don't have anything else to worry about that day, right??)

So who the heck is buying all that data? Colleges. They buy that data in order to send you lots and lots of marketing materials. They can thin-slice the data in very sophisticated ways to target all kinds of subdemographics and maximize the response rate. I have plenty of reservations around that practice in this context, because in my experience, it can raise applicants' expectations and lead them to believe (incorrectly) that the school is actually recruiting them in some meaningful way, or that all that mail (electronic or otherwise) indicates something about the likelihood of getting in. Some of those marketing letters look very personalized, and might even be (robo)signed by the dean of admissions and have a pretty school crest and look terribly official. 

And they are official... official spam. Colleges are all chasing after a finite pool of candidates every year, and it's a marketing arms race. 

On the less sinister side, there are legitimate reasons to scout and recruit highly qualified students who might not be the easiest to find. As an admissions officer at a top school, you have to be an amazing talent spotter, a true Simon Cowell of the college world, to find that 15-year-old genius in Mongolia and get him into your classroom, as MIT did. Sometimes those diamonds are even in the backyard, like this college janitor who graduated with honors from Columbia. 

But that's not the kind of "recruiting" I'm talking about here. What's troublesome from an ethics perspective is the fact that schools have every incentive to generate as many applications as possible, and then to deny as many as possible. All of that goes unsaid when they're sending out those lovey-dovey letters and emails and glossy brochures. That practice increases their application volume and lowers their acceptance rate, and the college rankings reward them for that. (Popular perception does, too. Acceptance rates are actually not a great measure of quality, because they are so easily manipulated.) Schools that are trying to climb their way up in the rankings are often the ones to engage in spammy practices.

The good news is that many applicants already do treat the college marketing deluge as the spam that it is, to the point where we have to nag remind them to check their email (so last century), because schools send legitimate communications via email as well, and you don't want to ignore or overlook those. Unfortunately it all converges in the same inbox, thanks to those lists that the testing companies sell.

Bottom line: It's your data, and you can and should decide what you want to do with it. I know you're bombarded with a gazillion forms and questions you have to fill out — one of the joys of (1) being in high school and (2) applying to college — and this is just one more annoying thing to pay attention to. It's worth it.