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

The test-optional movement has been growing for years now, with approximately 1,350 colleges and universities in the US adopting some form of a test-optional or test-flexible policy. Due to the limited testing opportunities for the high school class of 2021, many schools shifted to test-optional admissions last year and some of these colleges are extending their policies for several years.

In fact, 55% of all bachelor-degree granting schools in the U.S. have announced that they will not require ACT or SAT scores for at least the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. This list includes every Ivy League university, as well as Stanford and MIT.  The number of schools that are extending their test-optional admissions policies has created a major shift in the college admissions process. While taking the SAT or ACT was often considered a crucial component of an applicant’s admissions journey in years past, many rising seniors may now be wondering whether they should still plan on sending their scores.

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 1,350 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, many well-known colleges and universities decided to move to a test-optional admissions model in response to testing cancellations during 2020 and 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Last spring and summer, the SAT and ACT canceled popular testing dates, which left students with fewer opportunities to sit for these high-stakes exams. While rising seniors who are applying in the 2021-2022 admissions cycle may have more chances to sit for the exam than their peers did last year, there’s no doubt that the ongoing pandemic has impacted every student’s learning experience and test preparation process. Colleges are well aware of this, and many schools have moved to extend their test-optional policies in an effort to ease the burden associated with applying to school while facing new and unprecedented disruptions.

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 2021-22 admissions cycle, students should carefully examine these policies and make informed decisions on whether or not to submit their test scores. Some of these schools, like Cornell University, even included a statement indicating 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. Generally, schools need to have a certain percentage of admitted students reporting scores in order to be considered for national rankings lists. However, US News & World Report announced that it will rank test-blind colleges, giving some flexibility to schools that have decided not to accept test scores at all during the 2021-22 admissions cycle. 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 how 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 based on when to start studying for sat, 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.

Should rising seniors submit test scores?

Students who are preparing to apply in the 2021-22 admissions cycle may feel a little unsure about whether or not they should include an SAT or ACT score as part of their application. In 2020, many testing dates needed to be cancelled, sometimes at the last minute, due to the pandemic. Generally, this hasn’t been the case in recent months; many rising seniors have had opportunities to sit for exams and will likely have more chances to take the SAT or ACT this summer and fall. As a result, these students might feel a little more unsure about their decisions compared to peers in the grade above.

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer that will work best for every student, it’s generally in an applicant’s best interest to sit for a standardized exam at least once. Even if a student ultimately chooses not to submit their scores, practicing and completing the SAT or ACT is a valuable learning experience that will help applicants prepare for the rigors of college-level coursework. Additionally, taking the test will give students a number that they can use as a benchmark to help them decide whether or not test-optional admissions is the right choice for them. By comparing their scores with the median SAT or ACT score for admitted students at each of their best-fit colleges, prospective applicants can get a better idea of the role they want standardized testing to play in their admissions process.

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.


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