The media loves to share stories about the “test optional” movement. While not new (FairTest.org began tracking test optional colleges in 1985), the decision to make test scores an optional piece of a student’s application became a widespread practice due to COVID. Students simply couldn’t sit for a test that was cancelled. Colleges had to do something, so thousands became “test optional.”
Now, families are confused. Should their child sit for the ACT or SAT? Are they required or not?!
What does it mean to apply to college “test optional”?
A college application has several potential parts – grades, courses taken, ACT/SAT score, extracurriculars/work, essay, letters of recommendation, etc. Each element is important to tell part of a student’s story, and admissions reps commonly take a holistic approach (considering all the parts as a whole) when considering an application. However, the three most heavily weighted factors are typically GPA, course rigor, and standardized test scores.
A college that is test optional does not require applicants to submit a ACT/SAT score and instead relies on all the other pieces of the application to make their decision.
Why do colleges even use test scores?
Colleges want to admit students who will succeed in their institution, and the three criteria mentioned above are the easiest way to see if the student and the college are a match. Standardized tests were developed so colleges could see how students from across the United States and around the world compared to each other.
A student’s access to a quality education can vary widely. ACT and SAT exams were intended to provide a means of comparing applicants to see how ready for college a student actually was regardless of where they lived.
Jump forward in time.
Many experts argue that standardized tests like the ACT and SAT no longer reflect the student’s preparedness for college but are more likely a reflection of affluence – a student’s access to better quality schools, more expensive tutors, and the chance to take the test multiple times.
This report from the College Board shows how the SAT scores increase for each higher level of family income. (Note: this report from 2016 is the most recent published by the College Board that includes family income.)
Our children feel great stress to get a “good score.” Sadly, students can even believe that their ability and potential is limited because of that one test score. They aren’t seeing themselves holistically and may define themselves by that one test score. Clearly, that’s not healthy.
For those reasons (and others), a group of colleges called “FairTest” schools decided to waive the requirement to report test scores with a student’s application. Due to COVID, the number of test optional colleges surged. At the time of this writing, 1,835+ accredited, 4-year schools are now test optional. (Fun fact: the first school to go test optional was Bowdoin College in 1969!)
MIT made headlines when it reverted back to requiring a ACT or SAT test score after previously being test optional during COVID. The Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia (USG) which includes the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech University also reverted back to requiring test scores. Will this start a trend? We can’t be sure yet. Colleges are studying this period in time to see if test scores are really the predictor of college success that ACT and the College Board claim they are.
What happens when a college goes “test optional”?
Adopting a test optional policy is popular and positive. Colleges receive positive PR, and the number of applicants surge. Over the last two COVID-impacted application cycles, the number of college applications submitted has increased by 20% while the number of actual applicants has remained fairly flat. The University of California college system received 251,179 applications for fall of 2022!
When a student chooses to use the test optional policy and not submit an ACT/SAT when applying, all the other parts of the application (GPA, course rigor, essay, letters of recommendation, extracurriculars) become more important.
Be aware that test optional universities may request test scores for scholarship consideration and/or for certain majors of study. And often, home schooled students will not be able to apply without submitting a test score.
Be sure to pay close attention to the wording used in the test optional policy stated by the school. We have seen some schools state that they are test optional, but “encourage” or “recommend” or “expect” scores to be submitted if the student has test scores.
A side note about test optional’s impact on rankings
Universities see several positive side effects from going test optional. When a college’s number of applications goes up, their acceptance rate will go down because they still only have the same number of open spots available. The acceptance rate can be a factor in those popular college rankings. The rankings assume that the lower the acceptance rate, the more exclusive/higher quality the college, and the higher their ranking should be. Also, the middle 50% test score range for a school may get a bump as applicants with lower test scores are not reporting them—another favorable factor (higher test scores) in college rankings.
Should my student submit a test score if they have don’t have to?
This is the big question, right? The answer is….it depends. A good thing to keep in mind is that just because a school’s admissions requirements change that doesn’t mean that their standards change. They are still looking for students that are an academic fit for their university. When a test score is not submitted, they’ll need to lean more heavily on the GPA and course rigor as a measure of academic readiness.
And let’s get this cleared up: students STILL submit test scores to test optional colleges. The reality is “most students submit test scores even at test-optional schools.” Consider these stats:
- When the University of Chicago went test optional in 2018, “90 percent of the university’s applicants…submitted test scores.”
- The University of Wisconsin reported that applicants submitting test scores were about two percentage points more likely to be admitted compared to those who did not. 63% of their applicants included scores.
- Emory reported that “31% of students ADMITTED to the Class of 2026 chose NOT to submit SAT or ACT scores.”
- Ohio State University reports that 54% of applicants submitted test scores.
Unfortunately, colleges rarely release stats about how many of their admitted students actually submitted scores. Unlike the Emory and Wisconsin examples above, most are hesitant to tell us how many admitted applications included test scores.
Test blind colleges are the only ones who will NOT consider a test score even if they are provided with one. (The number of test blind colleges is very small.)
The determining factor to consider is how a student wants to present themselves as a whole to the college. Some students will want to include test scores because they bolster the application. Other students will choose to leave them out because they don’t test well or didn’t get the chance to get the score they wanted. As journalist and higher education author Jeff Selingo summarized, “it’s best to have a test score if it will help your overall case.”
The real benefit of test optional policies?
The real benefit to test optional policies is that students have a path to apply to schools even when their standardized test score is not reflective of their overall performance during high school. Too often students will not apply somewhere because they feel that their test score has put them out of contention—even when the rest of what they have to say in a college application is strong.
The Common App reported 52% of the highest household income applicants included test scores while only 39% of the lowest income submitted scores. Students who were academically talented but felt their test scores weren’t good enough could now have the confidence to apply. Cornell enrolled a more diverse class, including a nearly 50 percent increase in the share of first-generation college students.
Students need to size up where they stand and really grasp what test optional means and how it may or may not apply to your situation. If the test score strengthens the student’s application, it’s likely the best move to include it.
If college is your destination, understanding your strengths, values, interests, traits, and challenges is important in order to identify a college major and future career. Students can struggle with this thinking. We can help.
How does a student know if their test score is good?
The middle 50% range of test scores are published for most universities. Let’s look at an example using a Google search. We’ll search for the “middle 50% ACT score for Ohio University.” Google tells us that the middle 50% of students scored an ACT between 21 and 26. If a student has a test score in this range or above it, it is in their best interest to include that score in their application because the data point strengthens their application.
Let’s look at another one. When we searched for Case Western Reserve University, we see that the middle 50% ACT score range is 30 and 34. If a student has a score below that number but they are still really qualified academically (took a slate of rigorous courses and performed well in them), then applying test optional allows them to include Case Western in their list of schools—knowing that the other pieces of their application can tell a strong story that they are ready for this college.
When looking at the middle 50% data, pay special attention to the year of the freshman class being reported. Note that many schools implemented test-optional policies for students entering fall 2021, and therefore the data being reported may not be representative of the most recent entire freshman class. However, on the whole, we consider this data to be usable as an element of a broader search.
Keep in mind an important point. Due to the rise in the number of applications, nothing is guaranteed. An application may check all the boxes for a typical admitted student at that university, but not be offered acceptance because there are just so many like it.
Be open to the options and understand the holistic approach.
Colleges need students – now more than ever. When a college announces a test optional policy, they’re stating that they recognize a single test score does not make or break your application. But the college needs to see that your body of work during high school (especially the academic evidence in the classes you took and grades you got) demonstrates that you’re prepared to succeed at their institution.
Students need to understand what a college is looking for in terms of academic qualifications and if that college will be a good fit for them. The student can present themselves in their best light—focusing on their strengths.
We don’t anticipate that standardized test scores are going away completely. However, we hope that the focus on that one single score will continue to be reframed into a broader approach.
Originally published 6/26/2020
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