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Is "Test Optional" Really An Option?

Pencil, shapener and test form.  College testing

More and more colleges are allowing students to complete their applications without submitting SAT or ACT scores. FairTest lists more than 850 institutions that do not use standardized tests to admit substantial numbers of their freshman classes.

Why would an institution choose to downplay standardized tests -- and what does that mean for your application?

Colleges often proclaim that reduced reliance on standardized tests makes sense, given that GPA is a better predictor of freshman performance. But institutions usually have something else in mind as well. One of the latest to announce a policy change is Willamette University in Salem, OR. According to their press release, the college was especially concerned that "the SAT and ACT may dissuade talented, underrepresented students from applying to Willamette." Such students often have less access to the strong teaching and test prep services that tend to lead to higher scores.

When another institution, George Washington University in Washington, DC, instituted its test-optional policy for the current admissions cycle, one of its "key goals" was raising interest among minority and first-generation students. How did that work out? Evidently just fine, especially for the college. GW did indeed receive more applications from African-American and Latino students, and from more students whose parents did not go to college. But it also received 28% more applications overall, with about one in every five applicants choosing not to submit scores. Therefore, GW, in rejecting more students, increased its "selectivity" while admitting a more diverse class.

In sum, test-optional policies offer an institution three major advantages:

  • The college can admit more students that it wants (underrepresented minorities for sure, but also athletes, legacies and children of large donors), without worrying about reducing the average test scores reported to US News.

  • By allowing all applicants the choice to withhold sub-par SATs and ACTs, the college's average test score is almost guaranteed to go up; and

  • Students of all types who have lower test scores will feel welcome to apply, increasing the number of applications. Rejecting these applicants improves the college's selectivity rate -- another factor in the US News rankings.

This is clearly a win-win-win for the test-optional college. But what about for the applicant? Here's the bottom line: Your test score matters more than ever!

Even test-optional colleges must report test scores for three-quarters of their admits, or risk getting dinged by US News. If you are not an applicant the college is especially keen on, the institution will be looking to you to bolster its testing average. So -- no -- "test optional" often isn't really an option.

If you have questions or concerns about admissions strategy, please give me a call at 847-660-8625, or click the "Contact Me" button at the bottom of the page.

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