Should I Apply Test-Optional to College?
Prior to the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, rarely did a single month pass without another well-known college or university making headlines by announcing that it would no longer require applicants to submit standardized test scores. COVID-19’s destruction and disruption acted as a powerful accelerant, taking this already-blazing trend to previously unimaginable heights.
This movement, known as going “test-optional,” actually began almost 50 years ago at Bowdoin College, rapidly gained momentum over the last decade, and is presently just about ubiquitous across the higher education admissions landscape as we enter the 2021-22 school year.
If you are considering subtracting the SAT/ACT from your admissions equation, you need to first make sure that you fully grasp:
- Which schools are test-optional in the 2021-22 cycle.
- How do I decide whether to submit test scores?
- The academic profile you need to possess to benefit from test-optional policies.
- Do test-optional students get equal admissions consideration?
- What is the difference between test-optional and test-blind?
We begin with an overview of which schools are test-optional in 2021:
Which colleges/universities are test-optional?
In 2018, the University of Chicago became the first uber-elite research university in the country to jettison standardized testing as a mandatory part of the application process. However, they are not the first prestigious private research institution to do so—in fact, Wake Forest went test-optional a full decade earlier in 2008. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) was the first elite engineering powerhouse with this designation. In a “normal” year, the test-optional cohort includes many of the nation’s most selective liberal arts institutions such as Bowdoin (as we mentioned—the inventor of the policy), Wesleyan, Bryn Mawr, Bates, Colby, Smith, Franklin & Marshall, Trinity College, and Pitzer.
As soon as coronavirus reached American shores, hundreds of the top institutions in the country, including the Ivy League universities and elite liberal arts schools, adopted temporary test-optional policies and the vast majority have kept those policies in place in 2021-22. This occurred at a time when over 1,000 American colleges had previously adopted permanent test-optional policies and the University of California system was already moving in a test-blind direction (more on this later).
For a complete list of colleges and universities that are test-optional in 2021-22, visit the Test Optional Colleges section of our Dataverse.
Will test-optional benefit you?
The first step is examine the mid-50th percentile test scores at the institutions to which you will be applying. Going test-optional is not an all or nothing decision–you are permitted to submit your SAT or ACT results to some schools and not to others. Here are some guidelines to help you make these difficult decisions:
- Is your score at least in the 25th percentile for a given school? In other words, is it equal to or higher than the ACT or SAT number on the left side of the score range that you find on any reputable college website or college guidebook? If no, then you will almost certainly want to apply test-optional. For example, the mid-50% range at Duke is 1500-1560. If you scored a 1420, you will likely want to apply test-optional.
- If your score rests at or above the average (or median) score of students who entered the previous freshman class at this institution, then you should choose to send your exam results. For example, if the aforementioned student with a 1420 SAT is applying to Boston University where the mean SAT score is 1414, then they will likely benefit from submitting that score.
- We recognize that this example is for a student with SATs in the 96th-97th percentile, but the same process/logic applies whether your score is a 1050, 1170, or 1290.
- In general, if you are an applicant from an underrepresented demographic group (African American, Hispanic, first-generation, Pell Grant recipient, etc.), you are more likely to benefit from going test-optional than a student who is economically advantaged and/or white/Asian American.
What kind of academic profile do I need?
If you are planning not to submit SAT or ACT scores to a prospective college, ask yourself—what other components of my application stand out? Determine whether your grades, essays, and/or extracurricular record can truly distinguish you as an applicant and will inspire 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.
A test score-free application is going to be transcript-reliant which is fine for students hailing from most public and private high schools across the United States. Colleges have a general understanding of the curriculum, level of rigor, and grading standards at most U.S. secondary schools. However, as (our CEO) Andrew Belasco told the The Washington Diplomat, international or non-traditional students (i.e. homeschoolers) do not share this luxury, making going test-optional a less legitimate option in these circumstances.
Do test-optional applicants get treated equally in 2021-22?
Test-optional applicants are absolutely given a fair shot, but as we have stressed, there are two major caveats here: 1) For selective colleges, the other parts of the academic and extracurricular record have to be stellar and 2) those from underrepresented groups are more likely to gain an admissions-related benefit than non-minority, upper-income applicants.
In a case where you are being compared against a peer who is similar to you in terms of socioeconomic status and ethnic background–let’s say, for example, two relatively affluent white students–a test-optional applicant would certainly get a fair look for the admissions office, but if the other student possesses test scores that are in the median range for the school, they are likely to win the tiebreaker.
It is important to note that many selective universities did welcome a large number of test-optional applicants into the Class of 2025. After all, only 44% of applicants last year submitted SAT/ACT scores compared to 77% the previous year. At Boston College, 39% of accepted students submitted scores; at UVA 42% of applicants applied test-optional, but only 28% of those accepted did not include standardized test results in their application. At Brown University, 42% of those accepted applied as test-optional applicants. One additional interesting nugget on this subject—overall, EA applicants to Georgetown were accepted at a 10.8% clip; those who did not submit test scores as part of their application were only admitted 7.34% of the time.
What is the difference between test-optional and test-blind?
The University of California is officially going to be test-blind for the upcoming cycle. This means that applicants do not even have the opportunity to submit SAT or ACT scores for consideration with their UC applications. While still rare, there are other institutions that have joined the University of California, at least temporarily, in this test-blind approach. For the full list visit our Dataverse page.
Test-optional policies allow institutions to accept sub-par standardized test takers who are otherwise strong applicants without hurting their institutional statistics. During COVID-19, the policies have greatly expanded and colleges did indeed take great numbers of test-optional applicants in the 2020-21 cycle.
Research also suggests that test-optional admits ultimately perform every bit as well in their college careers as their test-armed peers. An internal study conducted by Bates College which went test-optional back in the mid-’80s suggests exactly this. In looking at two decades of data, the school compared the college GPAs earned by those that submitted scores and those that did not. The result was a 3.16 for test-submitters and a 3.13 for test-optional applicants—compelling evidence that the collegiate performance of both groups was truly equal.
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, you need to bring other stellar credentials inside and/or outside the classroom to really maximize the admissions-related gains.
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.