What Does “Test Optional” Really Mean?

Our team puts the rumors to rest

What Does “Test Optional” Really Mean?

Updated 8/23/21

In the 2020-21 admissions cycle, a majority of colleges and universities introduced test-optional policies in response to fewer opportunities for testing. What does this really mean? Our college admissions team tackles the four most common misconceptions below.

“Test optional is a new concept.”

False. Test-optional admissions policies have been around for decades; Bowdoin College was the first to move to test optional more than 50 years ago, in 1969. Historically, many of the other colleges that have adopted such policies have been small liberal arts colleges like Bowdoin, though in recent years, a number of larger schools have also become test optional, like American University and The George Washington University. Nearly three years ago, the University of Chicago made major waves when they moved to test optional; they were the most selective college to ever make the leap.

“All colleges are test optional now.”

False. While the majority of colleges did make the move for this past year, there were some notable exceptions, like the Florida state university system. For the class of 2022, the Georgia state university system has also announced that they will return to requiring standardized testing. Some universities, like the North Carolina state system, have said they are renewing the change just for this admissions cycle in light of COVID-19 academic and testing disruptions, while others, like the Colorado state system have made the decision to now move to a permanent test optional policy. Others, like Tufts University, had been considering moving to test optional already and launched multi-year pilot programs that they will reassess in 2022 or 2023. We are monitoring these announcements very closely, and we will continue to update our resources so that families can make the most informed decisions about their testing plans. For the latest, check out our post, updated regularly, with a list of noteworthy announcements.

“Test scores don’t matter anymore.”

False. A school that is test optional will absolutely still consider a student’s standardized test scores, and those scores can be valuable tools for admissions officers. So who should still send their scores? We would encourage any student who has achieved a score in or above the average range of admitted students to submit scores. A strong score can provide important information that supports a student’s academic work and their growth and achievement across time. The role of standardized tests has always been to support and contextualize the work that students are doing in the classroom, and that will continue to be true.

“The college I want to attend is test optional now, so getting in will be a breeze.”

False. While more students may feel they can now apply to certain schools, that does not mean the school is going to admit more students or change their overall admissions practices. Indeed, last year we saw increases in application pools, in some cases dramatic ones, resulting in the lowest acceptance rates in history at many schools. Ultimately, a selective school will remain just as selective, whether or not they require the SAT or ACT this admissions cycle. In some cases, they may even become more selective, as the pool of qualified applicants expands.

Students who choose not to submit scores should also keep in mind that if they don’t submit testing, the other aspects of their applications (academic profile, extracurricular life, essays, recommendations) will be weighed more heavily. This approach is evidenced in Cornell’s original statement when they announced their test optional policy:

Cornell readers will consider with increased scrutiny their other application documents, looking for different evidence of excellent academic preparation, including:

  • challenging courses and excellent grades in each secondary school (high school) context. Note: there will be no negative interpretation for schools and students who have had only pass/fail or similar grading options during this current term;
  • evidence of commitment and effort to pursuing other challenging learning experiences; 
  • results from other kinds of secondary, college-preparatory, and university-qualifying testing where available and verifiable; 
  • care, craft, and authenticity in their writing submissions; 
  • and wherever practical and available, details, insight, and analysis from secondary school counselors and teachers. 

In other words, Cornell still has just as rigorous a review process as it always does; if and when a student doesn’t submit the SAT or ACT, admissions officers will simply be shifting how they weigh different components of the application and evidence of intellectual vitality.

As the college admissions landscape continues to evolve and adapt to COVID-19 disruptions, testing policies will undoubtedly continue to change as well. Our college admissions team is here to help your child navigate these choppy waters, especially now. For more information on how test-optional policies may impact your child’s college application process, reach out for personalized support.

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