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Test-Optional College Admission: What It Means for Applicants

Guest Contributor


As if applying to college weren't stressful enough, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a confusing wrench into the works: many schools have gone test optional, at least for the current admission cycle.

What does "test optional" mean, exactly? Do standardized tests still matter? Should your high school senior submit SAT or ACT scores when applying to a test-optional college or university? Should juniors move forward with the traditional planning and preparation?

In this article I’ll explore the answers to these questions and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted standardized testing in college admissions.

What Test Optional Means

According to a statement from the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), test optional is just that — when and if a student applies to a test-optional college or university, submitting SAT or ACT scores is totally optional. Applicants will be judged on test scores if they submit them, and will not be judged if they don’t.

Test optional is different from test blind. Schools with test-blind admissions do not consider standardized test scores at all, even if they are submitted, whereas test-optional admissions will include scores in their consideration if a student decides to submit them.

The test-optional trend has been building for a few years. Inside Higher Ed reports that the number of test-blind colleges is increasing, too, although their numbers lag behind those going test optional. According to FairTest, more than two-thirds or schools have now gone test optional, some for just this year as a response to the challenges posed by the pandemic, others for longer.

Do the Tests Still Matter?

The tests do still matter, although there are signs that their overall importance is decreasing. U.S. News, for instance, this fall included test-blind schools in its rankings for the first time. In May of this year, the University of California Board of Regents voted to phase out the use of the SAT and ACT in admissions over the next five years.

The SAT and ACT have received criticism, and some schools went test optional even before the pandemic. Notable here is the University of Chicago, which was the most selective school to be test optional before the recent wave of schools adopting the practice. The test-optional movement is driven in large part by concerns about equity and research bears out the theory that a student's test scores correlate more with factors like family income and parental education than with academic achievement. Studies, discussed by Inside Higher Ed, suggest that test-optional policies are generally successful, increasing diversity in colleges without negatively impacting academic results.

That said, colleges — especially top-ranked universities — need to sort through a mountain of applications when deciding which students to admit and appreciate the extra data point that standardized test scores provide.

Unlike high school GPAs, which vary based on school, rigor and scale, tests have one unified grading scale, which can make it easier to compare the students who take them. Test-optional schools generally do still suggest that students submit scores if they are able. Colleges want to ensure that the students they admit are well prepared to do the academic work required of them; while a student's GPA and transcript hold prominence, test scores are another useful barometer.

While the tests may matter less in the 2020–21 application cycle, and there are arguments both for and against their use in admissions, they won't fade into irrelevance any time soon. In the end, standardized tests matter because they have mattered for a long time and they will continue to have influence and momentum.

Should Your Student Take the SAT or ACT?

The short answer is yes, if they're able.

To expand on that, even schools which have gone test optional are just that — optional. This means test scores are unlikely to hurt your student's application, and could help it a great deal.

If your student scores very high on the tests, that indicates to colleges that they're ready for the work. If their scores are sub-optimal, there's no need to submit them this year, assuming your student's grades pass muster.

It's important to note that just because schools are test optional doesn't mean their overall standards for admissions have gone down. Rather, students without test scores will be more heavily judged based on other metrics of academic success such as their GPA, class rank and the rigor of the courses they took.

Students with low GPAs and test scores shouldn't think they suddenly have a chance at Harvard just because the university is no longer requiring standardized tests. On the contrary — this year's applicants may face more competition for spots because of the large number of students who deferred their acceptances (in the words of the New York Times, "Last year's safety school may not be safe this year").

While not all students will be able to take the tests because of cancelled test dates and reduced test location options, they should be aware of the broader context students are evaluated in. Students are judged regionally, which means they're compared most directly to students from their school and district. If most of their classmates took the tests and your student didn't, they should consider including an explanation of why they were unable to take the test in the new section of the Common App that addresses COVID-19 hardships.

Final Thoughts

Standardized testing will likely be part of college admissions for the foreseeable future, but its influence has been lessened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Admissions officers try to understand the context of a student’s application, and whether or not they submit test scores is now another part of that context.

Test optional, in the end, is just that. The tests and scores are optional, but if a student feels that their scores will portray them in a good light, they should definitely send them with their application.

Encourage your student to take the tests if possible. There’s nothing to lose from it, and possibly much to gain.

Antonio Cruz is a mentor and content creator at Ivy Scholars, a college admissions advising company. He has a BA and MA from the University of Chicago, where he studied Near Eastern archaeology.
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