Test Optonial

What does it mean to apply to college test optional?

“I keep hearing announcements that colleges are no longer requiring students to submit an ACT/SAT score with applications. Can you help us unpack the details?” What does it mean to apply to college “test optional”?

The events of spring 2020 significantly disrupted the normal ACT/SAT testing schedules for high school students. These disruptions continued through 2020 and into 2021. In an effort to give students a reasonable path to applying to college in the event they don’t have a test score, many colleges announced they would institute a “test optional” policy for the Class of 2021, and some have continued this policy for the Class of 2022. (At the time of this article’s update, colleges are rolling out their plans for the Class of 2022.) All this news shone a new spotlight on test optional admissions.

There are several parts of a college application – 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 (a good look at all parts) when considering an application. However, it’s common that the three most heavily weighted factors are GPA, course rigor, and standardized test scores. What happens to the process when a college goes “test optional”? When should a student NOT submit a test score with their application?

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 a student actually was regardless of where they lived.

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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.

As a result, a group of colleges called “Fair Test” schools have decided to waive the requirement to report test scores with a student’s application. Due to COVID-19, the number of test optional colleges have surged because of the difficulty for the Class of 2021 and 2022 to sit for an exam. At the time of this writing, 1,500+ accredited, 4-year schools are now test optional for the Class of 2022. (Fun fact: the first school to go test optional was Bowdoin College in 1969!)

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 can surge. One 2019 study found “an application increase of 29 percent at private institutions and 11 percent at public institutions.

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 will probably request test scores for scholarship consideration 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…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.” When the University of Chicago went test optional in 2019, “90 percent of the university’s applicants…submitted test scores.

While most colleges have not provided all their numbers from this past application season (2021), we have heard that more students applied to colleges that they might not have before because of test optional policies. However, “students with test scores got accepted more often. In some cases, the admit rate was twice as high for students with test scores vs. those without.” Here are a few examples shared by Jeff Selingo:

  • Emory: Admit rate 17% (with tests) vs. 8.6% (without tests)
  • Colgate: 25% (w/tests) vs. 12% (w/o tests)
  • Georgia Tech: 22% (w/tests) vs. 10% (w/o tests)
  • Vanderbilt: 7.2% (w/tests) vs. 6% (w/o tests)

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 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.

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.

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 will need to see that your body of work during high school (especially the academic evidence in the classes you took and grades you got) show that you’ve 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
Updated 6/16/2021

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