What Does “Test Optional” Mean Anyway?

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the college admissions calendar. High school juniors would normally be taking the SAT or ACT this spring and, if not satisfied with their scores, retaking the tests during the summer or fall of their senior year. However, the SAT and ACT were canceled this spring and it is not clear if summer testing will be possible. Many colleges have responded to the canceled test dates by adopting test optional admissions policies, assuring high school juniors that they can apply even if they do not have test scores or do not feel that they were able to achieve test scores that adequately demonstrate their abilities.

The role of standardized tests in the admissions process has confused parents and students even before the pandemic, with most people overestimating their importance at most colleges. Now, with more colleges allowing applicants to apply without test scores, it is even harder to decipher how test scores (or the lack thereof) will impact an applicant’s admissions chances. I have been “spying” on this subject for several years and offer the following explanation of test optional policies.

What does test optional, test flexible and test blind mean?

In lieu of requiring the SAT or ACT, colleges have three choices. They can be test optional, flexible or blind.

  • Test optional colleges allow the applicant to apply with or without test scores.
  • Test flexible colleges require some form of testing but it doesn’t have to be the SAT or ACT. Some colleges allow applicants to submit AP test scores, IB exam scores or SAT Subject test scores instead.
  • Test blind colleges are not interested in evaluating standardized test scores. If students submit them, they will not be considered as part of their application.

It is very important to read the application requirements carefully. Some colleges are test optional for most majors, but not all. For example, some test optional colleges require students who intend to study engineering, nursing or education to submit tests scores. Other colleges require students who do not submit standardized test scores to provide alternative evidence of their abilities such as a paper, portfolio or additional letters of recommendation.

Are test optional admissions policies new?

No. The first college to adopt a test optional policy was Bowdoin College (a small, liberal arts college in Maine) in 1969. Bates College (also in Maine) followed suit in 1984. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Massachusetts) was the first science and technology university to implement test optional in 2007. The University of Chicago (Illinois) was the first highly selective research university to embrace test optional policies in 2018. By the beginning of 2020, over 1000 colleges were test optional. A full list of test optional colleges and universities can be found at fairtest.org.

Why have so many colleges stopped requiring the SAT or ACT?

Colleges that do not require the SAT or ACT have found that these tests are not necessary to predict which applicants are going to thrive academically on campus. Admissions professionals at test optional colleges generally view academic rigor and grades as the best indicators of success at the college level. In other words, they look at what classes applicants took in high school and how they did in them. Admissions professionals at test optional colleges are able to select students using these alternative indicators of success.

Many colleges have stopped requiring the SAT or ACT in an effort to increase diversity on their campuses. It has been shown statistically that white and wealthy students score higher on the SAT and ACT than minorities and low-income students. Colleges who want to increase educational access to Black, Hispanic, first-generation and low-income students may remove the requirement of SAT or ACT test scores to attract more applications from these demographics.

Colleges also choose test optional admissions policies to improve their selectivity relative to other colleges in the statistics published by U.S. News and World Report and other college guides. Colleges that are test optional appear more selective in the rankings in two ways. First, by allowing students to apply test optional, colleges increase the number of applications they receive. The more applications received, the more students the college must reject, the lower their admission rate and the higher they place in the rankings. Additionally, colleges report their middle 50% test scores to U.S. News and World Report and other publications. Students who choose to take advantage of a test optional policy by not submitting test scores are presumably students who had lower scores. Since those lower scores are not shared with the college, the college is unable to report them, skewing their middle 50% of test scores higher than it would be if all scores were received and reported.

Why is the COVID-19 pandemic causing more colleges go test optional?

Since mid-March, many colleges have announced that they are implementing test optional policies including Tufts University, Tulane University, Oregon State University, Rhodes College, Vassar College and the entire University of California System. Some colleges have announced that they will only be test optional for this coming year. Others have committed to a test optional policy for multiple years, as a trial or have permanently changed their admissions requirements. Colleges are making these changes because they are concerned that the pandemic will result in a low number of applications. Students who have not been able to test would not be able to apply if the tests are required. Other students may have lower scores than they would have if there had not been a pandemic (due to testing under stress, not being able to take advantage of tutoring and test prep courses and not being able to test more than once) and those students may self-select out of the admissions pool because they do not believe their scores would be high enough to warrant an acceptance. Additionally, colleges are in competition with one another for students. As the wave of colleges moving to test optional expands, other colleges are under increasing pressure to do the same in order to maximize their chances of receiving applications from as many qualified students as possible.

Are applicants, in effect, excused from taking these tests without any penalty?

No. All high school juniors should, to the best of their ability considering the limitations and stress imposed by the pandemic, plan to study for and take the SAT or ACT when they become available.

Here are the reasons why:

  • A score that matches or exceeds the grades and rigor demonstrated by a student’s transcript will enhance their chances of getting accepted to the colleges on their list.
  • If students do not submit test scores, colleges will likely assume their scores are on the lower end of or below their published middle 50% score.
  • Some colleges use SAT or ACT scores to determine merit aid. Students do not want to miss the chance to receive a discount on tuition.

How do students determine if they should submit their scores at a test optional college?

Students should submit their SAT or ACT scores if the scores reflect their academic abilities. It is also helpful to know the middle 50% of scores at the schools on their college lists. Knowing how their scores compare to matriculated students at a particular college can help determine if students are more competitive applicant with or without their test scores. Students can find this information on the common data set, published by most colleges.

Many students suffer from “test score anxiety.” These students make the mistake of believing their test scores are not competitive when they are fine scores for the colleges on their list. Students who are unsure whether to submit their test scores can call the admissions offices of the colleges on their list. Admissions counselors will be more than happy to advise you on this and other aspects of their admissions process.

Will students be accepted at colleges if they don’t submit SAT or ACT scores?

They might. While admissions counselors may assume that the absence of a test score indicates a score that the applicant did not believe was competitive, the other parts of the application may be strong enough to warrant an acceptance. It always helps to have a hook, something that makes a student more attractive to a college than the general applicant pool. Examples of hooks are being a legacy, athlete, musician or full-pay student. Also, consider other strategies to enhance the likelihood of acceptance including applying early decision (if available) and affirmatively demonstrating interest in the college in a manner that will likely be tracked by the admissions office (e.g. participating in a phone interview with alumni or admissions staff, following the college on social media, etc.).

The trends and rules that normally govern college admissions are going to be very different in the upcoming admissions cycle. Given the pandemic and economic fallout, many students are likely to choose more affordable college options that are closer to home, leaving some colleges scrambling to fill their classes and others scrambling to award the amount of financial aid students are going to need. The recent move to test optional policies by many colleges and universities is likely just one of many changes we will see in admissions in the near future.

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Michelle McAnaney is the founder of The College Spy, a full service independent educational consulting firm that assists students and families across the US and internationally with the college selection and application process. Prior to founding The College Spy, Michelle was a guidance counselor and educator for more than 15 years, including serving as the Director of Guidance at two high schools, an adjunct college professor and a GED tutor. Michelle holds a master’s degree in school counseling and a bachelor’s degree in human development. She recently completed UC Irvine’s certificate program in educational consulting and is a MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) Certified Practitioner and a NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner. Michelle visits over 40 colleges each year so that she has first-hand knowledge of the colleges and universities her clients will be considering. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and on The College Spy Podcast.