The notion of test-optional admissions was born in 1969, in the coastal town of Brunswick, Maine. There, the newly-minted, fresh-faced Dean of Bowdoin College, Roger Howell Jr., all of 33 years old, made a bold decision—he would eliminate the SAT as an admissions requirement for his school. Howell explained in his inaugural address that he preferred that Bowdoin focus on the “human quality of its students” in the admissions process. It was a concept that very much fit the spirit of the times.

The second domino’s much-delayed drop took place in 1984 when Bowdoin’s fellow-Mainers, Bates College, jettisoned standardized test requirements. After Bates, things fell quiet for decades until all of the sudden in the mid-aughts, when anti-SAT sentiment reawakened and the number of test-optional schools began a steady climb over the next decade and a half. By March 2020, there were over 900 schools that had adopted test-optional policies. Then, the coronavirus hit American shores…

Many colleges have gone test-optional due to COVID-19

Recognizing that the coronavirus crisis has caused massive disruptions to the lives of current high school students (along with the rest of the world), many colleges came forward with admissions-related policy changes, particularly in the area of standardized testing requirements. Thus far, most elite colleges have announced test-optional policies including:

  • All University of California schools including Berkeley and UCLA
  • Brown University
  • Caltech (test-blind!)
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Columbia University
  • Cornell University
  • Dartmouth College
  • Duke University
  • Emory University
  • Georgetown University
  • Harvard University
  • MIT
  • Northwestern University
  • Princeton University
  • Rice University
  • Stanford University
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Virginia
  • Yale University

In total, as of September 2020, roughly 60% of the nation’s four year colleges have shifted to a test-optional policy for at least upcoming admissions cycle; in certain cases schools have committed to additional years beyond just the high school Class of 2021. For a complete list of selective institutions that have gone test-optional in 2020, visit our Dataverse page.

Should I go test-optional?

Pre-Covid, when students were applying to highly-competitive, test-optional schools like Wake Forest, the University of Chicago, or Bates College, conventional wisdom was to only submit your SAT/ACT results if you possessed a score at or above the school’s median composite score. Many counselors are recommending that students follow this same course in the coronavirus era, and while we don’t view this as anything less than solid advice, we do have a slightly different take on the subject…

If everything else in your application is strong—rigor of classes, GPA, class rank (if applicable), AP test results, extracurricular activities, academic honors, etc.—then we recommend still including your SAT or ACT score if it falls somewhere in the median band, even if it is toward the lower end (25th percentile).

Why submit SAT/ACT scores if they are below the median?

Unless the course of the pandemic shifts drastically in the next few months, the majority of American high school seniors will not have a chance to sit for the exam at any point in the pre-application submission portion of their 12th grade year. Likewise the majority were unable to sit for the exam through the spring and summer of 2020. This means that the majority of applicants in the 2020-21 cycle who did take an ACT/SAT did so in the first half of their junior year.

Undoubtedly, there are some students who sit down to take the SAT or ACT only once and score a 1,600/36 on that first try. Along the same lines there are some individuals who take a standardized test two, three, or even four times, and fail to ever top their initial score (whether that is a 1,000 or a 1,500). Yet, studies have shown that retaking standardized tests generally does lead to higher scores. Overall, those who retake the SAT, regardless of whether or not they practice in between sessions, improve by an average of 40 points. Those who study on the Khan Academy for 20 hours increase their SAT score by an average of 115 points.

With so many score-submitting students unable to retake either exam (even once), the scores for the prospective Class of 2025 are likely to be lower than those of the Class of 2024. Let’s look at one highly-competitive school as an example.

Example: Student Applying to the University of Pennsylvania

Penn’s freshman class in 2020-21, entered the university with middle-50th percentile SAT ranges of 700-760 on the verbal section and 750-800 on the math section. While adding together scores at the 25th percentile does not always give you the precise composite 25th percentile overall score, it’s usually close. So, for the sake of this example, let’s say that in a typical year, the middle-50% of Penn’s students score between a 1450 and a 1560.

Looking at the geographic origins of this same class, you’ll find that 62% of the cohort come from five states: Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, California, and Florida—all regions that were hit particularly hard by the pandemic. If we assume that many students from these states will also be applying in the 2020-21 cycle (very likely), we can also assume that the majority of competitive applicants to Penn will have had their access to multiple exams restricted. Let’s say you are a student from New York who took the SAT one time in fall of your junior year, scoring a 1470, a touch below the mean score for accepted Quakers in a typical year. Ordinarily, if given the option, you wouldn’t submit this score (note: at Penn, in ordinary times, this wouldn’t even be an option) because it is below the school’s mean.

Yet, in a year where a great number of students will not be submitting scores, should you really “hide” the fact that you scored in the 97th percentile on your first try, before you even took some of the advanced math courses that address material covered on the SAT/ACT?

Admissions officers are highly intelligent people and we believe that they are capable of seeing the context behind a number. Therefore, in this scenario, in the 2020-21 admissions cycle, we would recommended that this Penn applicant submit their scores and trust that the additional data point—in a year where admissions officers will be trying to decide between ten students with the same advanced coursework and same near-perfect GPA for one open slot—will actually be helpful in boosting one’s admissions prospects.

Will I be able to retake the test?

If you have the opportunity to take the SAT or ACT a second time and feel that you can do so in a safe and secure environment, then by all means, we advise that you avail yourself of the opportunity. However, if the August administration of the SAT is any indication, this is very much a hit-or-miss proposition.

Of the 402,000 high school students who registered to take the August 2020 SAT, 178,600 were blocked due to test center closures or limits in their seating capacity. Forty-six percent of the testing centers closed and many of those that were open had to operate at reduced capacity. In July, 1,400 students showed up to take the ACT, some traveling from hours away, only to find that their test center had been shuttered without notice.

On paper, there are plenty of plenty of opportunities to take the test. For more, see the following articles:

Nontraditional Students

Like any of us, admissions officers like to have as many data points as possible when making a decision. If student went through high school in a traditional setting, they likely possess many data points that can be compared against hundreds of other classmates. For students whose high school education was less traditional, such as those who were homeschooled, those who attended cyber schools, or those whose education was interrupted for a medical reason, there is likely a dearth of easy-to-quantify metrics on which to base an admissions decision. While such applicants do receive a holistic review at most schools, we highly recommend that these individuals submit a standardized test result, if at all feasible.

Impact on merit aid

If you’re cost-conscious in your approach to higher education, make sure you understand the potential financial implications of withholding your test scores. Some test-optional colleges still award merit aid on the basis of standardized test scores, at least in part. Unfortunately, this is an under-researched topic and little valid data exists on the precise impact of SAT/ACT score submission on merit aid awards.

The vast majority of test-optional colleges state on their website something to the effect of “Students who do not submit SAT/ACT scores will still be considered for merit scholarships.” In the absence of real data on the subject, it is hard to draw any conclusions, but it is fair to state that not submitting standardized test data may put you at a disadvantage for at least some merit-based scholarships. This could be true during coronavirus times as well.

College Transitions’ Final Thoughts

Faced with so much uncertainty during these difficult times, college applicants—like everyone else—are seeking sound, concrete advice wherever they can find it. In aiming to provide such guidance on the topic of test-optional admissions we hit the following key points:

  • The majority of U.S. colleges have gone test-optional for 2021, including almost all of the most highly-selective institutions in the country.
  • If you only took an SAT or ACT once and achieved a score in the typical 25th-75th range for a given university, we recommend that you consider submitting that score, even if it is closer to the 25th percentile than the median.
  • If you feel it is safe/prudent to do so, sign up to retake the test in fall 2020, even if the probability is high that these dates may be cancelled.
  • Non-traditional students who attended a fully virtual high school, were homeschooled, or experienced significant disruptions during their 9-12 career, should strongly consider submitting scores, whenever possible.
  • We don’t yet know the true impact of SAT/ACT scores on merit aid in the 2020-21 admission cycle, but they could play a similar role as in previous years.