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Are Test-Optional Policies Here to Stay?

By Carolyn, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

As you might have heard, many colleges across the country have been adopting a test-optional application review process in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you know you will be submitting applications of your own sometime in the next few years, you might be wondering what exactly ‘test-optional’ means and whether or not these policies will apply to you. In this article, I will address some of these questions and consider the possible scenarios that you might encounter when your senior year rolls around.

What does it mean if a college is “test-optional”? 

If a college adopts a test-optional admissions process, it means that students do not have to submit standardized test scores (specifically ACT or SAT scores) in order for their applications to be considered. If they do not submit scores with their applications, the academic review will be focused primarily on the contents of the transcript.

If they do decide to submit scores, they will be reviewed alongside the transcript to get a more comprehensive view of the student’s academic performance. Note that this is different from a “test-blind” process, in which test scores are not considered at all, even if they are submitted.

Why have schools been adopting test-optional policies?

Historically, a small number of colleges (primarily small, liberal arts schools) have used test-optional admissions to increase access for students who are unable to take standardized tests or do not feel their test scores accurately reflect their academic potential.

When the pandemic forced SAT and ACT testing sites to close in the spring of 2020, the majority of colleges temporarily adopted this policy so that students who were unable to test would still be able to apply and have their applications considered. As the pandemic continued, the majority of these colleges (roughly 75% across the nation) maintained their test-optional policies for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle, and several have committed to do so for at least a few more years after.

What are the benefits of a test-optional admissions process? 

One of the biggest benefits of a college adopting a test-optional admissions policy is the same benefit that these policies were adopted in the first place: they allow students who cannot or do not feel safe taking a standardized test in a public space to still have a complete college application and be considered for admission at their chosen institutions. As new variants of the pandemic emerge, this safety measure will continue to be important, particularly for students living in areas with higher infection rates.

This increase in access results in a larger, more qualified, and more diverse applicant pool for colleges. And ultimately, a better, well-rounded student body once admissions and enrollment decisions are made.

Interestingly, test-optional policies also tend to increase average test scores for colleges, as the students with higher scores are far more likely to submit them with their applications than students who did not perform well. Because testing averages are one of the metrics by which colleges are evaluated and held accountable, this potential for better metrics appeals to admissions offices and the schools they serve.

What are the drawbacks of a test-optional admissions process? 

On the flip side, there are some parts of the admissions review process that are made more difficult when a test-optional policy is adopted. For one thing, colleges that required test scores for decades had to quickly and dramatically adjust the way they evaluated applications when these policies were adopted. Significant procedural changes like this led to uncertainty and a steep learning curve for admissions offices, and it stands to reason that many of them might be looking forward to the day when they can return to “normal.”

Additionally, these exam scores have long been viewed as a way to standardize academic potential across high schools—all of which use different grading scales, curriculum standards, and transcript formats. These factors make it difficult to determine what a qualified student looks like from place to place. Test scores have also been shown to be a strong predictor of success in college. Removing them from the application review process makes it more difficult for colleges to feel confident in assessing applicants’ predicted graduation rates.

Finally, colleges might be sacrificing some of their clout in the ranking process, considering average test scores are one of the most significant metrics used in calculating those rankings. As previously mentioned, test-optional colleges often show higher averages overall. However, many ranking systems (including the one developed by US News & World Report) will only factor in a college’s test scores if a certain percentage of their applicants submit them.

Is test-optional here to stay? 

As you can see, many factors go into colleges’ decisions about whether or not to extend their test-optional policies beyond the pandemic. Many schools, including most recently Harvard University, have committed to staying test-optional for the next few years to ensure no one impacted by the pandemic will be denied access to their admissions process. The University of California school system has gone even further, committing to remain test-blind for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, many schools have already reinstated their testing requirements for the current cycle or have committed to doing so from next year.

What remains clear at this point is that nothing can be predicted for certain and that we should all prepare for continued changes and disruptions in the world of college admissions over the next few years. The most likely scenario is that test-optional will continue to be a more popular choice, particularly among selective colleges, than it has been in the past, but that there will still be many schools that will require test scores to be submitted.

Our best advice, then, is to be ready for anything. If you are a high school underclassman looking forward to your college application experience, assume that at least one or more of your colleges will want to see your test scores – and prepare for those exams accordingly. When you are a senior, you can then work with your counselor and the admissions officers at your chosen colleges to determine whether or not to submit those scores in order to maximize your admissions outcomes.

While the future of test-optional policies remains unclear, making a test-prep plan can help you prepare for the college admissions process. If you’re a college-bound student gearing up for the college admissions process, contact us today for more information on our college counseling services.

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