Test-Optional Does Not Mean Test-Blind
Across the nation, students have transitioned to virtual learning and face the prospect of completing the school year at home. Along with the stress of the pandemic itself, students are dealing with uncertainty about whether they will receive actual grades for their courses, wondering how to prepare for at-home AP exams, and facing cancellations of the standardized tests they need for college applications. The situation is constantly changing, and institutions are responding as quickly as they can to the new reality. In recognition of the difficulties, some colleges have recently announced test-optional policies. What does this mean for your own personal college application?
It is important to understand what test-optional means and how it affects admissions decision-making. Test-optional means that it is up to the individual student to decide whether to submit SAT or ACT test scores. If scores are submitted, they will be evaluated as part of the application. If scores are not submitted, then a student will not be penalized, and their application will still be considered. Transcripts, course rigor, essays, recommendations, and activities will have increased importance for students who do not submit test scores.
This can be welcome news for students who do not test well but who have outstanding academic records and significant involvement in quality extracurricular activities. Studies have also shown that the number of minority applicants increases at test optional schools, so test-optional policies can be beneficial in promoting diversity in higher education. Due to the cancellations, many juniors who planned to take the SAT or ACT in the Spring will no longer have the luxury of taking the test multiple times for a superscore, so test-optional schools may seem more appealing.
But should students abandon their plans to take the SAT or ACT? Definitely not. Students should still plan to take the SAT or ACT in order to increase their choice, admissions chances, and scholarship opportunities.
There are approximately 5300 colleges and universities in the United States – currently, only about 21% have test optional policies. While many students may apply to test optional colleges, it is also highly probable that some (if not all) of your top choice schools will still require the SAT or ACT. Further, test-optional policies vary greatly from school to school. A school may be truly test-optional or it may still require test scores in certain instances. Some schools may require test scores unless GPA and class rank meet prescribed minimums, while others may require test scores from any out-of-state applicant. Other schools require the SAT or ACT for admission to certain programs or may require additional academic materials or more recommendations if test scores are not submitted.
Schools with test-optional policies typically see an increase of 12-29% in applications, but they are not able to admit more students. This means that the percentage of admitted applicants will likely be lower than usual for schools who recently adopted test-optional policies. Colleges must make decisions based on the information they have, and admissions committees always prefer more information. Historically, at test-optional colleges, 70-75% of attending students still chose to submit test scores, and those who do submit SAT or ACT scores are admitted more frequently than non-submitters. International students, home-school students, and other applicants from non-traditional educational backgrounds may find themselves at a distinct disadvantage if they choose not to submit test scores.
For applicants who are conscious of the costs of secondary education, be sure to understand the potential financial consequences of choosing not to submit SAT or ACT scores. Even at schools that have announced test-optional policies for 2021 applicants, merit-based scholarships still require SAT or ACT scores. For those merit scholarships that are listed as test-optional, it is unclear whether non-submitters are at a disadvantage.
Sophomores should be particularly wary of delaying testing or choosing not to test. Many of the schools that have announced test optional policies in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have specified that the policy applies only to applicants in 2021. Some have announced a 3-year pilot program. Sophomores, in particular, would be wise to begin their test preparation early and test as soon as they are ready. This will help them avoid any potential similar situations as college applications approach. Juniors who have not yet tested will be best served using their additional free time to prepare for the SAT or ACT and plan to take the test as soon as possible in order to maximize their college options.