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What Families Need to Know About Test-Optional Colleges and Admissions

This summer George Washington University announced it would no longer require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores as part of their college applications. GWU is one of many prominent US institutions to alter its testing requirements for undergraduate applicants, and as more schools reconsider how test scores factor into the admissions process, we’re taking a look at how this can affect students and parents preparing for college.

Why are some colleges going test-optional?
Over the past few years, more colleges have announced test-optional or test-flexible policies. Notable colleges that have opted to go test-optional include Wake Forest University, Bryn Mawr College, Wesleyan University, and American University, among others. Right now, there are over 850 colleges and universities in the US that are test-optional, test-flexible, or otherwise deemphasize test scores in the admissions process.

For many colleges, not requiring SAT or ACT scores aims to fulfill the goal of greater access – well-qualified students who may have been discouraged from applying previously because of their poor test scores might now consider a wider range of schools. This is all part of the “holistic review” process – there’s more to students than just test scores, and colleges know this.

How does this affect admissions and college preparation?
The college admission process has always been about getting to know the whole student and how he or she fits onto a college campus. Standardized test scores, however, tend to be the main focus of families’ admission preparation, mainly because they’re the most visible element and the easiest to quantify. Does this score meet the school’s standards? The obsession with test scores, however, can often take away from what’s really most important to colleges: grades, performance in college-prep courses, and students’ interests.

A survey of college admissions officers has found that the most important factor in admission decisions is grades – colleges know that how a student performs day-in and day-out in the classroom is much more important than how he or she does on one day on one three-hour test. College preparation should always prioritize academic performance, which can sometimes take a back seat to test-prep at the most critical times. By eliminating the pressure to produce perfect SAT or ACT scores, test-optional colleges are allowing greater opportunity for students to focus on academic performance and, to take it a step further, pursuing courses and activities that match their interests.

Colleges want to build well-rounded classes made up of specialists; how a student pursues his or her interests currently, and how he or she plans to pursue them in college, is critical for a school to build a well-rounded class. Many times these well-qualified specialists who are otherwise perfect fits can be passed over because of poor test scores. By eliminating that barrier, while still ensuring students are ready for the academic rigors of a college education, test-optional colleges are able to build stellar freshman classes that are just as gifted as those with students with perfect SAT scores.

While the availability of test-optional schools allows some students to put more focus on grades, courses, and activities as part of their college prep strategy, it is important for all students to take a practice SAT or ACT at least once. This allows students to know if one test or the other is best suited for them, or if they should instead focus on test-optional colleges. Students need to know where they stand and where they can improve in order to effectively utilize test prep resources and build an appropriate college list.

Is a test-optional school right for my student?
If a student is struggling with the SAT or ACT, but is otherwise a great student, then yes, he or she should consider test-optional colleges and universities. For some students, standardized tests just are not a strength – and that’s okay! Most students can make gains, sometimes really significant gains, with test preparation, but if a student is still not seeing improvements or the results he or she needs, it’s time to look for alternatives.

It’s important to know that while SAT scores alone won’t get you in or keep you out, students with low scores will have a much harder time getting into their target and reach colleges if a list isn’t adjusted to include test-optional schools. This is where proper college planning is most important – knowing how to craft a college list based on a student’s applicant profile and that student’s needs. College opportunities can actually be expanded, not limited, when considering test-optional institutions.

Difficulty reaching SAT or ACT goal scores can leave a lot of families wondering if a student’s college chances will be dashed. Parents and students need to remember that, while an important application component at some schools, test scores are not a limiting factor at every college in the US. There are a number of great colleges and universities that are test-optional or have flexible testing policies to accommodate students. Just because a student doesn’t have a high test score doesn’t mean he or she won’t thrive in college or that there are not a multitude of options for him or her to get a great education.

Navigating the college admissions process with low test scores can be difficult, so if you have concerns about your college options, contact us today for more information on our college counseling services. We can help with test prep, college planning, and selecting the right schools for you.

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