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Without Test Scores, How do Colleges Make Decisions?

By Carolyn, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

The process of preparing for, taking, and responding to standardized test scores is a stressful and overwhelming one for students and families, and with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, this process has only become more stressful in recent years. One of the ways that colleges have responded to the pandemic’s obstacles is to implement test-optional admissions policies to avoid disadvantaging students who have been unable to sit for an ACT or SAT.

This was a sudden and drastic shift that left many students and families with questions about how it will impact their own applications. But while the pandemic is affecting testing less and less, many schools choose to remain test-optional – at least for now. So what does this mean for current high school juniors and seniors? Below are some of the most common questions we have received from families about how college applications will be read this fall in light of these test-optional admissions policies.

What does “test-optional” mean?

If a college utilizes a “test-optional” admissions process, as many schools have opted to do for the current admissions cycle, that means that students do not have to submit an ACT or SAT score in order for their application to be reviewed and receive an admissions decision. If you take one of these exams and decide to submit your scores, this information will be used alongside the other pieces of your application in order to make a decision. If you choose not to submit your scores, the admissions office will waive the testing requirement and make a decision based solely on the remaining components of your application. (Note that this is different from a “test-blind” policy, in which test scores are never reviewed in the admissions process, regardless of whether or not the student sends them.)

Which colleges are test-optional?

The test-optional movement has been growing for a while now, with over 800 colleges and universities adopting test-optional or test-flexible policies over the last decade. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic this trend as accelerated, as many students have been unable to sit for an ACT or SAT due to test center closures. Hundreds of colleges of all types across the nation have adopted test-optional admissions in response to the lack of testing opportunities during COVID-19 – and many have chosen to continue extending their test-optional policies to future admissions rounds. Some, however, have already returned to test-required policies, so be sure to double and triple check before applying.

Should I submit my test scores if the colleges I’m applying to are test-optional?

This is a very common and potentially stress-inducing question, and the answer is that it’s entirely up to you. As much as I’d like to give you a definitive yes or no, there is no hard and fast “rule” to determine whether or not you should submit test scores, as it depends on your academic profile, the remaining contents of your application, and the profile of the college to which you are applying. This is why getting proper guidance, either from your school-based college counselor or an IvyWise counselor, is so important, as the answer is different for everyone! In general, sending your scores may be a good idea if (a) you feel your scores strengthen or elevate the academic information on your transcript and (b) your scores are strong in comparison to students who are traditionally admitted to that school. If you think your transcript will stand up stronger on its own in the context of a particular school’s applicant pool, you may want to leave your test scores at home.

While withholding test scores may not hinder your application or the admissions decision you receive, strong testers should bear in mind that submitting a good score could mean the difference between an acceptance or a spot on the waitlist. More students are applying to college now than ever before, which means the applicant pools are exponentially more competitive than they were just a few years ago. If another student with a similar academic profile to your own chooses to submit their scores to a college with limited spots available, that can mean the difference between them or you receiving an offer of admission. However, if your test scores are below the college’s middle 50% range (the median score range of admitted applicants), choosing to withhold your scores may be more beneficial. Your college counselor will be able to offer more insight into the schools on your college list. Work with them and the admissions staff from the schools to which you’re applying to determine whether or not submitting test scores is the right decision for you.

If I apply to a test-optional college and do not submit scores, how will my application be reviewed?

In the absence of standardized test scores, your application will still be reviewed holistically, with more emphasis placed on the remaining pieces of your application. Your high school transcript will become the star of the show, as the remaining academic component, and the admissions office will determine your scholastic eligibility by reviewing your GPA, grade trend, curriculum, and (if available) class rank. For colleges that receive a large volume of applications, test scores are often the first pieces of information considered, and without it, expect them to look at your transcript much more closely.

They will then assess the more “personal” or “soft” aspects of your profile through your activity list, personal statement, recommendation letters, demonstrated interest, and more. This is where students can really shine, especially in the absence of strong test scores. Crafting compelling essays, putting together strong activity lists, and gathering stellar recommendation letters from relevant teachers and counselors can really help push your application to the top of the pile, and gives an admissions officer more to advocate for in the committee review process. In truth, this process does not differ much at all from a “traditional” application review, but it does mean you will want to make sure that the non-testing components of your file are as strong as possible.

It is important to note that hundreds of test-optional colleges have made it clear that a lack of test scores will not disadvantage students who apply to their schools in any way. You can view the list of colleges that have made this commitment on the NACAC website.

I do not have test scores yet, but I am registered to test in October/November/December. Can I still apply early to my top choice colleges?

Again, this decision is best made in consultation with your college counselor and the school’s admissions staff, as it will depend on a number of different components specific to you and to the college. If you have not already, take a full-length practice test to get an idea of the score you should be expecting when you test later this fall. If you think your scores will be strong enough to outweigh the benefits of an early application, you may want to wait for the regular decision deadline. If not, go ahead and apply early without the scores. In either scenario, remember that all you can do is make the best decision possible with the information you have, and try not to stress yourself out about it too much!

I am a current junior. Should I expect these colleges to be test-optional again next year?

While some schools have announced extending test-optional policies for the next two-to-three years, most schools have adjusted their testing policy only for the current admissions cycle. If test center closures have ended or online testing has fully launched, many colleges will likely return to a traditional admissions process that requires SAT or ACT scores. Then again, some of them may not. I strongly recommend that current juniors continue to prepare for standardized tests as normal, so that you have strong scores for the schools that require them. In the meantime, make sure your performance in the classroom is excellent as well, as your transcript will be a primary focus of your admissions process in any scenario. Most importantly, keep your focus on learning, building content knowledge and skills, and expanding your existing mindsets, so that you are intellectually prepared for the college experience.

At IvyWise, our team of former admissions officers knows how applications are read, with and without test scores. We can help you determine the best application and testing strategy for your individual circumstances, and ensure that your application paints the best picture of you as a student and person even without test scores. If you have additional questions regarding standardized testing or decisions that need to be made about your applications this fall, reach contact IvyWise today.

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