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Without Test Scores, How Will Colleges Make Decisions?

By Carolyn, IvyWise College Admissions Counselor

Even in a “normal” school year, the process of preparing for, taking, and responding to standardized test scores is a stressful and overwhelming one for students and families. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, test centers across the country have closed or canceled exams throughout the spring and summer, and even into the fall, sending the world of college admissions into a frenzy. One of the ways that colleges have responded to these obstacles is to implement test-optional admissions policies for the upcoming admissions cycle, to avoid disadvantaging students who have been unable to sit for an ACT or SAT. This was a sudden and drastic shift that has left many students and families with questions about how it will impact their own applications. So what does this mean for the class of 2021? 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 limited testing and 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 2020-2021 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 are not able to take one of these exams, or 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. If you are looking to see if a specific college has changed its testing policies, check out our blog as well as each school’s admissions website.

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 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 took the ACT/SAT, but the colleges on my list are now test-optional. Should I send my scores?

This is a very common and potentially stress-inducing question, and the answer is that it’s entirely up to you. 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 – 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. Work with your college counselor and the admissions staff from that school to determine whether or not submitting test scores is the right decision for you.

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. Find out if any of your schools are adjusting their early deadlines or deferral policies due to the lack of testing opportunities applicants had over the spring and summer. 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!

All of the tests I registered for over the summer and spring have been cancelled. Should I keep trying to test?

You are probably tired of me saying this by now, but this is also entirely up to you. Your health and safety are by far the most important factors in this decision, and so if you do not feel comfortable entering a test center this fall, stay at home. Most (if not all) of the schools on your list will accept your application without test scores and evaluate you based on your performance in your high school classes. If you feel confident in your ability to test safely in your area and you know, based on full-length practice tests, that your ACT or SAT scores will significantly increase your chances of admission, feel free to continue registering for exams. Keep in mind, however, that closures and cancellations may continue throughout the fall, so be mentally prepared to send in those applications without scores.

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

While some schools have announced test-optional policies for the next 2-3 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 (be it virtual or in-person) 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.

As you may have gathered, there is quite a lot to consider when it comes to testing this fall, and a lot that remains to be seen about how standardized test scores will impact the college admissions process this fall. Remember to be kind to yourself, keep your head on straight, and expect the unexpected throughout this process.

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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