What recent admissions policy changes really mean for students.
College admissions news has been buzzing these last few weeks with headlines about schools going “test-optional” - at least temporarily - in response to COVID-19. This is welcome news for students who may have missed a key testing opportunity when the April and May SAT and ACTs were postponed. But, as with any change in the admissions world, it’s important to go beyond the headlines and understand what it really means for students. When a school announces that it is “test-optional,” does testing become irrelevant for all students applying to that institution? Absolutely not. While test scores are no longer required to complete an application, the vast majority of test-optional schools still welcome test scores and value strong scores in the admissions process. Let’s take a closer look at these policies and how they work.
Why are some schools going test-optional?
Test-optional admissions policies were already on the rise before COVID-19 led to test cancellations this spring. For many colleges, adopting a test-optional admissions policy can be beneficial. Test-optional schools tend to see the following changes in their admissions patterns:
These factors have been at work for years, but when COVID-19 hit the world this spring and social distancing limited students’ access to standardized tests, colleges had another reason to at least temporarily adopt test-optional policies. For colleges that were already considering a test-optional policy, the spring SAT/ACT postponements provided the final push to make an announcement. Other schools, like Amherst and Williams, are adopting test-optional admissions, along with more flexibility about grading and other traditional requirements, as a temporary stopgap measure during these uncertain times. And still others, like Tufts and Middlebury, are “piloting” test-optional admissions for a fixed number of years and will then determine whether to make the policy permanent. (For a more extensive list of COVID-related changes, see our test policy chart.)
What does test-optional mean for students?
Whether you are looking at a school that is temporarily test-optional for the coming year or one that has a permanent test-optional policy in place, the same wisdom applies: test-optional does not mean test-blind. Sometimes students think that if a school is test-optional, test scores will no longer play a major role in admissions. This is a misconception.
As we explain in our Guide to College Admissions Testing, test-optional policies can benefit high-achieving students who simply do not test well and students from disadvantaged backgrounds with limited access to the tests test prep options. While test-optional policies create a new lane for students who struggle with standardized testing, these schools often still value strong testers who submit scores. Students with strong scores will naturally submit them because they are an asset to an application and provide confirmatory evidence of a student’s academic strength.
Many of the colleges have underscored this point in their test-optional policy announcements. Boston University, which recently announced a temporary test-optional policy, tells prospective applicants on it’s admissions site to make the decision about whether to submit scores within the context of their whole application:
Prospective students and applicants must decide for themselves whether or not to include standardized test scores with their application for admission to Boston University. When making this decision, students should consider the totality of their academic record, their contributions both in and out of the classroom and to their communities, and whether they feel confident that the sum of these experiences fully reflect their academic ability and potential.
In short, test-optional admission opens a lane for students who do not test as well or have more limited access to testing and supportive resources, like test prep, while continuing to value strong test scores. There are effectively two admissions tracks with slightly different criteria. Students who do not submit scores will be evaluated on the rest of their application, including grades and extracurricular involvement, but they lack the additional evidence that test scores can provide in a competitive admissions environment.
In some respects, the additional data that test scores provide may be even more valuable to colleges when they review applications for current juniors. Social distancing due to COVID-19 has meant an end to summer internships, service programs, and other extracurricular activities for many students. You can’t play soccer if the season is cancelled. Meanwhile, many courses are moving to a pass/fail grading structure in the midst of at-home schooling, which means juniors have less of a chance to show their academic skill at the apex of their high-school career. In Honors Physics, a “Pass” simply doesn’t carry the same clout as an “A.” In this environment, solid test scores may carry even more weight than usual.
Additionally, test scores still play a pivotal role in scholarships and merit-aid award decisions, even at colleges that are otherwise test-optional. For example, Hofstra University in New York is test-optional, but students wishing to apply for the Trustee’s Scholarship (full tuition for four years) have to submit scores. For many colleges, the most prestigious merit-based awards depend upon a rigorous schedule, strong grades, and the test scores to match.
Are test-optional schools still looking at scores?
When the University of Chicago adopted a test-optional policy last summer, some experts wondered if testing would cease to play a major role for the school. That does not appear to be the case. The University of Chicago remains an incredibly selective institution. Just over 6% of the 34,648 applicants for the Class of 2023 were accepted, with middle 50% ranges of 1500-1560 on the SAT and 33-35 on the ACT. Notably, the Class of 2023, the first to be admitted under the school’s test-optional policy, boasted the lowest acceptance rate and highest test scores ever in the school’s history. In a move to increase access, Chicago offers free tuition for students with families who earn under $125k annually, and they have waived their test score requirement. But outstanding test scores remain an asset that many applicants will use to their advantage.
We know from test score submission rates at other prominent test-optional schools that the overwhelming majority of applicants still submit scores at those schools as well.
Here is 2018-19 test score data for admitted students who submitted either the SAT or ACT at prominent test-optional schools:
*Source – Common Data Set (CDS) 2018 – 2019.
In Bill Hiss’s Defining Access study, he and his colleagues found that roughly 25% of students do not submit scores from his sample of 28 test-optional colleges and universities. It’s evident that students continue to send scores to these highly selective, test-optional schools. Certified Educational Planner, Janet Rosier, sums things up well in her most recent blog post for the Hearst Connecticut newspapers online editions, “most colleges still want to see the results of a standardized exam and many colleges that are test optional receive a majority of applications that include test scores.”
As we move toward a landscape with more test-optional schools, be careful not to conflate test-optional with test-blind. Testing continues to play an important role for many students applying to test-optional schools and will do so for the foreseeable future. It’s only natural: in the midst of heavy competition, applicants will take every opportunity to distinguish themselves. Meanwhile, admissions officers know that students have felt the educational and financial effects of COVID-19 and are working to account for these unprecedented changes in their admissions processes. Students need to understand the specific admissions testing policies at each school, so they can make an informed decision about how to apply to each school on their list.