An iconic year, even by the standards of its iconic decade, 1969 teems with momentous events in America’s cultural history: the moon landing, Woodstock, the Amazin’ Mets, and the start of American withdrawal from Vietnam. That same year, events quieter, although within the narrower scope of college admissions history, of no less magnitude, unfolded in the small, 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. Yet unlike other 1969 debuts such as Sesame Street, the ATM, and the Abby Road album, test-optional admissions was not a trend that swept the nation like wildfire.
In fact, 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-2000s when anti-SAT sentiment reawakened and quickly reached a fever pitch.
Given its humble beginnings, it is fairly astounding that there are now 850 test-optional schools in the U.S., including highly-selective liberal arts institutions such as Wesleyan, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Dickinson, and Pitzer. There are also many elite schools that have become “test-flexible” such as Middlebury, Colby, Hamilton, and Trinity. Understanding the implications of these policies on your admissions and financial aid prospects is of the utmost importance.
Why colleges go test-optional
Institutions eliminating or de-emphasizing standardized tests often cite a lack of confidence in the SAT’s and ACT’s ability to predict college success and/or a desire to improve campus diversity (although a widely publicized College Transitions study shows that test-optional polices may not increase the enrollment of underrepresented students).
Pure-intentioned or not, test-optional schools gain the benefit of not having to claim the SATs of their presumably lower-scoring students. Applicants who do not to submit scores typically have scores 100-150 points lower than those who elected to include scores in their application. Therefore, test-optional schools can boast artificially higher average SATs for admitted students which makes them appear more selective.
Don’t confuse test-optional and test-flexible
There are a number of selective colleges, including Brandeis, Colby and NYU, that do not require the SAT or ACT, but still require applicants to submit results from one or more other exams, such as AP or IB exams and SAT subject tests. Before developing an admissions strategy, make sure that you are familiar with the exact testing requirements at each of your prospective colleges and that you learn whether the submission of test scores is truly optional. These policies are ever-evolving so it is important to stay on top of the most current policy information. For example, Bryn Mawr became test flexible in 2009 but switched to full-blown test-optional in 2014.
There are also institutional variations of test-optional policies. Lewis & Clark requires test-optional applicants to submit a portfolio containing, among other things, an analytical writing sample as well as an example of scientific work. George Mason only allows standardized tests to be excluded from ones application if that individual has a minimum GPA of 3.5 and ranks in the top 20% of their high school class.
Will test-optional benefit you?
It’s not enough to simply compare your standardized test scores against those of the average incoming student. You should also take a serious look at other components of your application. Determine whether your grades, essays, and/or extracurricular record can truly distinguish you as an applicant and compel your prospective colleges to vote “yes.” These application materials will be even more heavily scrutinized now that your admissions officers are without an essential piece of information, which although biased, can still provide for meaningful comparisons between you and the rest of the applicant pool.
Impact on merit aid
Some test-optional colleges still award merit aid on the basis of standardized test scores, at least in part. If you’re needy and/or cost-conscious, make sure you understand the financial implications of withholding your test scores. For example, Dickinson, Gettysburg, and Goucher are three selective test-optional schools that still require test scores for merit-based scholarships. We advise you to contact the admissions offices at each of your prospective test-optional colleges to determine whether merit aid is tied to standardized test performance, and if so, to what extent.
The bottom line
Test-optional and Test-flexible policies allow institutions to accept sub-par standardized test takers who are otherwise strong applicants without hurting their institutional statistics. Skeptics will also point out that, in this system, colleges have a financial incentive to take on more students without financial need whose scores may not be up to snuff without any blow to their perception of selectivity.
If you are individual who, for one reason or another, cannot achieve SAT/ACT scores that are commensurate with your ability as a student, then exploring the test-optional route makes good sense. However, unless you possess a blank check to cover your four years of study, due diligence on each test-optional/flexible school to which you apply is essential.
College Transitions recently published a complete list of selective, test-optional colleges. Please click here to see which colleges have done away with standardized test requirements.