What Does Test-Optional Mean for Students?
With frequent news about colleges going test-optional, you’re probably wondering, “Do I really need to take the SAT or ACT?” For many students, the answer is, yes – you should at least consider taking the tests; whether you submit your scores to every college on your list will depend on a variety of factors.
Test-optional policies are an opportunity for you to decide how to best present yourself to each college on your list. You might decide to withhold your scores from a school where they wouldn’t help make your case for admission but, if you skip testing entirely, you may be preemptively eliminating an important asset in your application.
As Carol Lee Conchar, Associate Director for Regional Programs at GW, explained in a recent Applerouth webinar, students “should take the test for…experience…and to see how well you perform” because having a score “in your back pocket” is valuable.
Perhaps your test scores will help show that you’re academically competitive at a more selective school, or perhaps your scores will help you earn a merit scholarship. You take yourself out of the running for these possibilities if you prematurely decide not to take the SAT or ACT at all. This doesn’t mean that testing is for everyone, but it does mean that each student needs to make an informed and individualized decision about testing.
To help you do this, here are some FAQs about test-optional admissions and test planning. With these questions answered, you can decide what role testing will play in your college admissions journey.
What’s going on with test-optional admissions right now?
Test-optional policies are not new. Many colleges were test-optional before COVID, but test-optional announcements accelerated rapidly when the pandemic caused massive test cancellations in spring 2020. Test-optional policies are making headlines again in 2021 as many schools have extended their temporary policies due to the ongoing pandemic.
Many colleges, like Cornell and Tulane, have made clear that their new policies are a temporary response to COVID. Some colleges, like the University of California System and the University of Oregon were already considering adopting test-optional admissions when the pandemic took hold this spring. Still others, like Tufts and Elon, are treating their new test-optional policies as multi-year “pilots” and will reevaluate whether to keep the policies permanently.
What does test-optional really mean?
With test-optional policies on the rise, informed college applicants need to understand what test-optional is and what it isn’t. A test-optional policy does not mean that ACT and SAT scores are not factored in as part of the admissions decision, only that they are not a prerequisite for submitting an application. In other words: test-optional does not mean test-blind. Test-blind schools do not accept or consider standardized test scores at all.
Many colleges that have chosen to become test-optional have done so in the hopes of evening the playing field for all applicants. It provides an opportunity for students to customize their application process while ensuring that testing does not systematically deny students a shot at admission, whether due to COVID, access to educational resources, a learning difference, a mental health concern, or any other life circumstance that may make it difficult, if not impossible, to take the tests and get scores that show their best abilities.
How will test-optional colleges look at my application if I do (or don’t) submit scores?
Over five hundred colleges and universities took a pledge through the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, stating that they would not penalize students who did not submit scores. Still, score submitters may have an advantage at particular schools. We now have some early admissions data from the high school class of 2021 (current seniors) that gives us a glimpse of how things are playing out for this year’s early applicants.
For example, Georgetown’s early decision data reveals an advantage for applicants who submitted test scores. While the overall acceptance rate for early applicants was 10.8%, the acceptance rates for students without test scores was 7.34%, indicating that students who submitted test scores were admitted at a higher rate than those who did not. The University of Pennsylvania’s early admission numbers also suggested an advantage for students with test scores. The University announced that while 62% of early decision applicants submitted test scores, 76% of those receiving offers of admission submitted scores, revealing a 23% advantage for test submitters.
These examples show that test-optional schools still value strong testers who submit scores. Still, each college will have its own approach, and we’ll have a more nuanced picture once regular decision numbers become available this spring and summer.
It’s important to remember that the admissions process is “holistic.” This means that, whether you submit scores or not, colleges are evaluating your whole application, including your test scores (if you submit them), your high school records (GPA, course rigor, an extracurricular portfolio), your essay or writing sample, and letters of recommendation.
If you choose not to submit scores, the admissions decision will be based solely on the non-testing aspects of your application. Rick Clark, Georgia Tech’s Director of Undergraduate admissions describes the admissions approach as a “stool” with different legs, including GPA, course rigor, extracurriculars, and letters of recommendation:
[I]f you choose not to have some of that support on the testing leg, we’re just going to look a little closer and put more weight on the rest of the stool.
At a test-optional school you have the option of choosing where some of the admissions weight will fall. Clark advises that students ask themselves, “Do you want some of the weight on testing, or do you want it removed from that?”
Ginger Fay, Applerouth’s Director of IEC Engagement and former Duke University admissions officer, explains that things that enhance your application are worth including, even if not required:
You want to consider how well your whole application speaks to your preparation for college. In truth, many aspects of your application are “optional” – you don’t have to take challenging classes or earn top grades, you don’t have to play sports or lead organizations, but if you’ve done these things, you’d certainly want to include them.
Fay notes that the decision about test scores boils down to whether they are a good reflection of your potential to succeed in college. “If they are, you will want to include them. And if they aren’t, you will opt not to submit them when they are not required.” Conchar recommends that you ask yourself whether your “test scores reflect you in the best way possible plus support your academics.” What students are “doing in the classroom is really, really important,” she says, “but test scores add that additional information for us.”
How would I do on the SAT or ACT?
Taking full-length practice SAT and ACT exams is a great way to find out. To ensure reliable results, be sure that your practice tests are full-length, official tests (written and released by the College Board and ACT, Inc.), and taken under timed conditions that mimic those of a real test day.
What are the testing policies at the colleges on my list?
Take some time to look at current testing policies and score ranges at schools you’re interested in. Testing information can typically be found on each college’s admissions website and will vary from school to school. You’ll want to pay special attention to time frames for any current policies – many of the newly-adopted test-optional policies are temporary.
Do I need test scores to qualify for scholarships?
While you’re researching colleges and testing policies, you should also look at merit scholarship opportunities. Many colleges offer merit scholarships to students who meet certain academic criteria and, often, SAT or ACT scores are required to qualify, even at test-optional schools. It is not uncommon for students to discover that their current test scores (or a very small increase in those scores), combined with their GPA, make them eligible for tens of thousands of dollars in merit aid.
What is my testing timeline?
Your timeline will depend on a variety of factors, including admissions deadlines at your colleges of interest and commitments you have throughout the year. Ideally, you’ll map out a timeline that comfortably allows for two to three test dates and 10 to 12 weeks of preparation before the first official test. This year, you’ll need to consider the possibility of test date delays or limited testing seats (due to COVID and social distancing).
What if I am experiencing testing anxiety?
Test anxiety is very common, so you’re not alone. Still, this year more than ever, there’s added anxiety around testing due to the uncertainty and safety concerns that the pandemic brings. When it comes to health and safety, it’s important that every student choose what’s right for them. For some students, that may mean not testing or testing less than the 2-3 times we’d recommend in a typical cycle.
For anxiety about the test itself, there are helpful strategies that you can use to self-regulate during the exam. As a career college admissions officer and a parent herself, GW’s Conchar understands that students may feel undue pressure and “fear of how you’re going to be judged by the score that you receive.” Still, she advises that testing “is a good practice to go through.” This is especially true if you anticipate applying to graduate or professional school someday or entering a field that requires high-stakes testing at some point. We believe, like Conchar, that, with the right support, students can use the testing experience in high school to work through testing anxiety in a healthy way and gain confidence that will serve them well for years to come.
Hopefully, you now feel more informed about test-optional admissions and, therefore, more prepared to make testing decisions that are right for you. If you have more questions as you start to plan, our SAT and ACT Program Advisors are here to help you schedule a free practice test and provide individualized guidance. We’re also offering free practice tests and Understanding Your Scores sessions during our upcoming Winter Testing Weekend.