High school students preparing for college admissions should keep a close eye on the changing landscape of college admissions testing policies. The once clearly understood standard of “SAT® tests or ACT® tests required” was turned on its head during the COVID-19 shutdown. Colleges across the U.S. have adopted test optional admissions policies, meaning the tests are not required for general admission.
As we navigate our way to a post-COVID world, college admissions testing policies continue to evolve. In this post, we explain what test optional admissions really means for families and suggest steps to best position students for college acceptance.
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Test Optional: Admissions Adaptation During the Pandemic
What is test optional admissions?
A test optional admissions policy typically means that test scores are not required for general admittance. However, most test optional colleges will still consider your test scores if you send them. In some cases, colleges may still require test scores for certain criteria, such as scholarships, admission to an honors college, or admission into a competitive degree program.
There are a select few colleges that do not consider test scores at all during the admissions process. The best way to know for sure whether a test score can help you get into certain colleges is to review the admissions policies listed on the colleges’ websites.
Why did so many colleges go test optional?
As the pandemic shutdown slammed its doors, testing organizations and students registered for tests faced a very unpredictable season, not knowing from day-to-day whether a test day would have to be cancelled due to community COVID surges, not to mention families’ concerns about COVID exposure at test sites.
Colleges had to respond to the challenges prospective students faced, both with sketchy test date availability and concerns revolving around the pandemic. Rapid changes sent waves across our society. Some families faced health challenges with COVID exposures. Then came financial challenges as businesses, jobs, and the overall economy felt the impact of the pandemic. College administrators and admissions departments realized a possibility of drastically reduced application pools and declining enrollments. Meanwhile, they also saw astronomically rising costs to deal with COVID and rapid changes to their operating models with no visible end in sight.
Most institutions moved to a test-optional admissions policy. This gave college applicants a choice of whether to submit SAT or ACT test scores for undergraduate admissions. More than 1800 schools elected a test-optional policy for the 2021-2022 academic year.
Keep in mind that test optional is not a “new thing.” Wake Forest announced one in 2008, followed by the University of Chicago in 2018. Both of these pre-pandemic policies were partially based in an effort to promote diversity and to give disadvantaged and underserved populations greater opportunity on tests that some believe favor the privileged and wealthy. Many other less selective schools that previously required tests only relied on them more for scholarship and honors program selection. There have always been colleges that did not require tests. They just were not household names and never rose to the top of the U.S. News’ annual list.
What does it mean when a college is “test blind”?
Some colleges decided to go “test blind,” a policy which describes a school that does not consider admission tests at all in their selection process. This, too, became more popular during the pandemic, now with 8% of the top 200 colleges adopting it, including Cal Tech, University of Chicago, and all University of California schools—at least for now.
How has test optional affected college admissions at top schools?
Overall, potential applicants responded favorably to the shift away from “test required” to “test optional.” Application numbers soared at many schools because the headlines led many to conclude that test scores no longer mattered. Schools like Columbia saw as much as a 51% increase in applications in 2022, and Harvard saw a 41% increase.
Although never a stated reason for the change (and while often overwhelming admission staffs), schools that saw these increases benefited by demonstrating greater selectivity rankings. However, for the schools who went test optional in an effort to increase enrollments from disadvantaged and underserved populations, we see mixed results. Pre-pandemic research shows no significant change in minority enrollments from going test optional, and the jury is still out post-pandemic.
Although applications were up, enrollment gains were marginal in most cases. In a report published by the American Educational Research Journal in April 2021, test-optional admissions resulted in increases in underrepresented groups by only 1% in the 100 colleges studied pre-pandemic.
How long will test optional last? Are some colleges requiring test scores again?
With several test optional admissions cycles under the belt, we now see some universities reassessing their decision to go test optional. Schools like MIT, Georgetown University, and Georgia Tech have begun to reverse their decisions for test optional, returning to a test required policy for 2022.
As explained on the MIT admissions blog, “Our research has shown that, in most cases, we cannot reliably predict students will do well at MIT unless we consider standardized test results alongside grades, coursework, and other factors.”
According to Stu Schmill, MIT dean of admissions and student financial services, “Our research shows standardized tests help us better assess the academic preparedness of all applicants, and also help us identify socioeconomically disadvantaged students who lack access to advanced coursework or other enrichment opportunities that would otherwise demonstrate their readiness for MIT. We believe a requirement is more equitable and transparent than a test-optional policy.”
Purdue, University of Georgia, University of Tennessee, Florida public universities, and others have returned to a test-required policy for 2022. This shift suggests that test scores are a valuable aspect of the admissions process at some colleges.
Although many institutions have extended test-optional policies through 2023, some colleges have yet to determine whether these policies will extend to 2024 and beyond. As stated on the University of Texas at Austin website, “For Fall 2024 freshman applicants and beyond, the university will continue to review the requirement to submit a standardized test score (either an ACT and/or SAT score) as part of the undergraduate admission application.” And for many other schools, their policies state, “Test optional, but test recommended” or “Tests considered, but not required.”
Deciding When to Apply Test Optional
Should you still take the SAT or ACT test even if it’s optional?
In most cases, a KD student plans to apply to at least one school that will still consider test scores. We recommend that students plan to take the SAT and the ACT tests at least once to see how they perform. For many schools, good test scores can still give your application a boost. Below, we explain how to decide whether to submit your scores.
Should you choose to apply test optional?
So, the real question that every high school student should be asking, “Should I choose not to submit test scores at a test-optional school on your future college applications?”
ANSWER: There is not one answer for every student. Your specific college goals and ambitions will influence the path you should take.
Who should submit test scores?
Any student with competitive college goals (or even somewhat ambitious, yet undetermined, goals) should follow a plan that will prepare them for the most favorable college application possible at each target school.
To be safe and fully prepared, that would include a competitive test score, along with your best grades, activities, and accomplishments. It should also include thoughtfully prepared college applications, essays, and interviews (if applicable).
If you still have time to prepare and take an admissions test, this will give you a chance to be equipped with all the tools that could influence the decision that a college will make. To remove test scores from the equation gives you a shorter deck to submit and greater scrutiny on the remaining items submitted.
Certainly, if a school requires a test score, then you need to send one. If time allows, a student should prepare and test as needed until application deadlines. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds or underrepresented populations may want to submit test scores regardless as different evaluation criteria may apply to you at many institutions.
Who should not submit test scores?
Obviously, if you are applying to a school that has a test-blind policy, you don’t need to submit a test score to that school. However, many students’ college application list of target schools includes one or more test-optional or test-required schools. This means that even those students should at least attempt a test date if the test-optional schools really matter to them. Then, at the time of application, they should compare their best scores to the schools reported middle 50 percentile of accepted students from the previous year, usually found on the college’s website or in the school’s Common Data Set report.
If the student’s score is below that range, they might consider not sending scores to a test-optional school. But, even with students with scores in the 25th percentile, data supports an advantage in the likelihood of acceptance with submitted scores. For example, at Emory University more students were accepted without test scores in 2021, but a greater percentage of the students accepted had submitted scores than those who did not submit.
Most Important Takeaway for Every Student and Parent
If a student cannot produce a competitive test score or is not motivated enough to produce a competitive college admissions test score, there are plenty of colleges with test-blind policies out there waiting for you to apply. And yes, there are more test-optional colleges than ever before. (NOTE: You still will have to take tests when you get to college, though).
If you have important college goals for admissions—or want to pursue competitive majors, honors programs, and/or scholarships—you will not approach the college admissions journey asking, “How little do I have to do?” Rather, you will ask, “What is within my power and ability to make my college dreams a reality.” As the college admissions and testing environments continue to be fluid at best, it is very important to monitor the individual policies of any schools of interest and be open to building the most competitive application possible.
For most students, a competitive test score should be involved to keep all the best options open and achievable.
Need help preparing for admissions tests?
Since 1992, KD College Prep has prepared students for the SAT, ACT, and PSAT tests. We offer a wide range of test prep programs and college counseling services to help students reach their college goals. To learn more about our programs, scheduled a free consultation to speak with a member of our team.