What Does “Test Optional” Really Mean?

Our team puts the rumors to rest

What Does “Test Optional” Really Mean?

This spring has proven to be a deeply challenging one for juniors planning to take standardized college admissions tests. Already, more than one million students who would normally have taken the SAT in the spring have not yet been able to take it—and that’s just one exam. The College Board and ACT are working hard to roll out new test date administrations for summer and fall, with the latest developments including the cancellation of SAT dates until August and later June and July ACT dates. Both organizations are also planning for online, at-home testing. 

However, some colleges have already announced that, in response to fewer opportunities for testing, they will be adopting test-optional policies for this fall. What does this really mean? Juniors are likely hearing a lot of conflicting information about test-optional policies right now. 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 two 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. At this point, far more colleges still require the SAT or ACT than don’t. We do expect that more schools will move to test optional in the coming weeks, especially given the cancellation of the June SAT, but we do not yet know which or how many colleges will make the change. While some, like Tufts University, had been considering moving to test optional already and are launching multi-year pilots, many others are making the change just for this admissions cycle in light of COVID-19 testing disruptions, meaning that future graduating classes won’t have the same experience. This is something we are monitoring 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 daily, with a list of noteworthy test-optional announcements.

“Test scores don’t matter anymore.”

False. A school that is test optional will absolutely still consider a student’s standardized test scores. Cornell, for example, goes out of their way in their recent statement to explain which students might still benefit from scores as “meaningful differentiators” (those students who have still had access to testing, and/or those who have not suffered economic hardships in 2020). 

If more schools move to test optional, this will of course be a huge boon for those students who may not be able to take any SAT or ACT exam at all before early deadlines (should additional test dates be canceled down the line). Even some students who have had the opportunity to take the exams but have not achieved scores that they feel reflect their academic potential may choose to apply test optional to those colleges that allow them to. This is particularly true of students who may have very strong academic records but haven’t been able to score in the ranges of their schools of interest. 

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. In a year when junior spring classes have been disrupted and many students are being graded Pass / Fail, a strong score could provide important information that supports their 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. A selective school will likely remain just as selective, whether or not they require the SAT or ACT this admissions cycle. In fact, in the case of the University of Chicago, the acceptance rate actually decreased once they adopted this policy!

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. As the Cornell statement linked above explains:

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 will still have 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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