Test-Optional College Admissions

Things moved quickly in the world of college admissions, with most colleges deciding to go test-optional during COVID.  Many have remained test optional as we’ve emerged from the pandemic, despite the fact that testing is widely available to most students again.

We understand that changes to testing policies are confusing to those of us who applied to college when test scores were a critical part of the admission process.  So what brought on this very drastic policy change, and why have colleges not reverted back to requiring test scores?  What do colleges mean when they say they are test-optional, and what do they actually think test scores bring to the table?

Why do colleges go test-optional?

Colleges decide to go test-optional for different reasons.  There are studies showing different data about what the SAT and ACT actually indicate, whether or not they correlate to students’ ability to succeed in college.  Additionally, some studies indicate that the tests discriminate against different types of students.  When colleges announce a test-optional policy, they may be attempting to level the playing field, to attract more students who don’t necessarily have access to (sometimes expensive) test preparation tools and tutors.

You may believe the tests show intelligence, and that a higher score means you’re smarter than someone who has a lower score, but that’s not necessarily how colleges interpret test scores.

Breakdown of the math elements on the ACT

This part is important:  when colleges adopt a test-optional admission policy, they will look even more closely at your transcript:  not only the grades you earned in all of your courses, but also the classes you chose to take, in the context of what was available to you.

They’ll see from your school profile which advanced classes are offered, and sometimes, the grade or GPA distribution within your class.  Some profiles show what percentage of your class has an A average, a B average, and lower, which tells them if there’s a problem with grade inflation at your school.

Students with a strong grades and rigor on their transcript do well in a test-optional situation.

So who benefits from test-optional admissions?

  • Students who have learning challenges, such as dyslexia, ADD, processing issues, testing anxiety, or any other specialized situation can benefit from test-optional admissions, because their scores often do not correlate as closely with their academic performance in school.
  • Students who have very strong grades but for some reason, don’t test as strongly.  Test-optional policies are less helpful to students who have mid-range grades, like Bs and Cs.  Students with low grades but high test scores are showing colleges that they’re smart but didn’t really apply themselves in school – not ideal for most colleges who are looking for students who want to succeed.
Breakdown of the elements of the ACT English section

What do college admission officers think about test scores?

Because many of us have been conditioned to think that higher scores mean you’re smarter – even if we’re talking about a 50-point difference in test scores – it’s important for you to understand the mindset of the people making admission decisions and policy, and why many colleges have made the switch, sometimes permanent, to test-optional:

“Studies have shown that test scores do not always accurately measure the qualities we are looking for in students.  Standardized testing simply shows who is a good test taker.”

— Vassar College President Elizabeth Bradley

“I don’t care that your best friend or the guy in your math class got a perfect score.  I don’t admit test scores, I admit people.  In a holistic process we see test scores, but we see so much more.  Don’t distill yourself to one number.  I don’t and neither should you.

— Georgia Tech Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Mattli

“The public perception of how much weight those exams carried was much more exaggerated than reality.”

— Lisa Przekop, UC Santa Barbara (9.14.21)

“If applicants would like us to consider their exam results as one component of their candidacy, we will do so in a nuanced and contextual way.  If students choose not to submit exam results, we will evaluate their candidacy in a nuanced and contextual way without scores.  Our holistic, committee-based approach to application review provides us with the flexibility to evaluate academic and extracurricular accomplishments within a student’s individual context.

— Tufts University website

Jon Boeckenstedt, Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University, which has recently announced its new test-optional policy, expresses very clearly his feelings about the inequity of the SAT and the ACT – and many leaders in the college admissions world agree with him.  Take a few moments to read his thoughts here.

This is a fairly long article from the New York Times by bestselling author Paul Tough, whose book, “The Years That Matter Most:  How College Makes or Breaks Us,” was released to great acclaim in 2019.  In this article, Tough interviewed Angel Perez, President of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and formerly VP for Enrollment at Trinity College in Connecticut, a liberal arts college that he moved to a test-optional process.  It’s a long read but it helps you see the admission process through a different lens. 

Many families are concerned that when a college says they are test-optional, students who submit test scores will still have an advantage.  This is really, REALLY not true.  Several hundred colleges signed this statement to reassure you that testing is just one data point and students who submit tests will not have an advantage.  The Dean of Admission at the University of Virginia is clear in her statement: optional means optional.

If you have questions about how test-optional admissions may impact your child, or about the college admission process in general, we’re happy to be your trusted experts on this exciting journey.  Feel free to give us a call or get in touch!

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