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

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

The test-optional movement has been growing for years now, with over 1,100 colleges and universities in the US adopting some form of a test-optional or test-flexible policy. Now, that list is growing, with many schools announcing test-optional policies for the next admissions cycle in response to limited testing opportunities for the high school class of 2021.

Some schools, like Cornell University, Amherst College, and the University of California system are going test optional for one year, while others like Tufts University and Middlebury College, are adopting test-optional polices for the next 2-3 years. This is a major shift for schools that otherwise value test scores as part of the application review process. These types of policies can have a big impact on students’ college prep process.

Why are colleges going test-optional?

Over the past few years, more and more colleges have announced test-optional or test-flexible policies. Notable colleges that have opted to go test-optional include University of Chicago, George Washington University, Wake Forest University, Bryn Mawr College, Wesleyan University, and American University, to name a few. Right now, there are over 1,100 colleges and universities in the US that are test-optional, test-flexible, or otherwise deemphasize test scores in the admissions process.

For many colleges that have gone test-optional over the years, 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.

Colleges want to build well-rounded classes made up of specialists; how a student pursues their interests currently, and how they plan 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.

More recently, a number of well-known colleges and universities have moved to a test-optional model to respond to limited testing opportunities for current high school juniors due to the coronavirus pandemic. The SAT and ACT have canceled popular spring and summer testing dates, leaving students with fewer dates to sit for these high-stakes exams. Many students will only be able to take the SAT or ACT once, eliminating the opportunity to improve upon their scores with a second examination. Colleges know that students are limited with their testing dates, so they’re hoping to ease the burden by adopting a test-optional policy for the next admissions cycle.

What does test-optional really mean?

It’s important to remember that these test-optional policies come with a big asterisk. Test optional does not mean test-blind.  Colleges will still consider scores if they’re included on students’ applications, and for a student whose application is on the cusp, a great SAT or ACT score could be the push needed to go from the “no” to the “let me think about it” pile.

It’s important to review the testing policy of each school on your balanced college list. Just because a school is advertising as test-optional doesn’t mean it’s a blanket policy. Some schools might still require test scores for certain majors or if you’re an international applicant. In the case of schools adopting temporary test-optional admissions for the 2020-21 admissions cycle, students should carefully examine these policies and make informed decisions on whether or not to submit their test scores. Cornell University, for example, announced a test optional policy for the 2020-21 admissions cycle. However, upon closer examination they did state that they want to see scores from students who otherwise haven’t faced any hardships in regards to testing access. In short: if you can take the SAT or ACT you should still submit scores.

Test scores also matter to colleges outside of just evaluating applicants. Most notably, schools needs to have a certain percentage of admitted students reporting scores in order to be considered for US News & World Report rankings. While a number on a list shouldn’t matter to students building a well-balanced college list, that ranking is important to colleges. Rankings affect everything from application numbers to bond ratings and how colleges secure loans for projects.

SAT and ACT scores are also important for other considerations, like financial aid and scholarships. Merit aid at certain schools may require an SAT or ACT score to qualify. Same for school and independent scholarships.

How does this affect admissions and college preparation?

The college admission process has always been about getting to know the whole student and they fit 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. 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.

NACAC’s annual 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 they do 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.

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, not every school is test-optional. It is still important for students to prepare for the SAT or ACT as part of their college prep process. At IvyWise we advise students to take a practice SAT or ACT at least once so they can determine which test is the best-fit for them and prepare for that examination. 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, they 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 really significant gains with test preparation, but if a student is still not seeing improvements or the results they need after extensive test prep, considering test-optional schools might be beneficial.

It’s important to know that while ACT or SAT scores alone won’t get students in or keep them out, students who submit 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. Just because a student doesn’t have a high test score doesn’t mean they won’t thrive in college or that there are not a multitude of options for them to get a great education.

Difficulty reaching SAT or ACT goal scores can leave a lot of families wondering how to approach the college admissions process. Low standardized test scores can be limiting at the many of the top schools in the US, but parents and students need to remember that now, more than ever, there are a lot of great colleges and universities that are test-optional or have flexible testing policies. So students should certainly consider test-optional admissions if scores continue to be a problem after two or three attempts taking these exams. And just because a college is test-optional doesn’t mean you should omit great SAT or ACT scores. Submitting a great testing score along with a compelling application to a test-optional school can only help your chances of admission.

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.