Over the last several years, in response to the pandemic and DEI initiatives, many colleges have implemented test-optional policies for admissions. But have you read the fine print? What does test-optional really mean for you?
Our advice to all of our students and families – plan to test and submit strong scores! The college application process has never been a time to sit back, do less, and hope for the best. And in this competitive climate, surely nothing about admissions has gotten easier. If a test-optional policy seems too good to be true, then perhaps it ought to be approached very cautiously. Ambitious people usually try to exceed expectations. And colleges and admissions teams are looking for ambitious students. These are students who go above and beyond relative to their peers and particular school setting and the opportunities at hand. Submitting strong test scores at a test-optional school absolutely helps to put you in the category of being ambitious and exceeding expectations. In this college admissions climate, it’s the rare exception that we advise a student to proceed test-optional from the outset.
Yes, we know it is a lot of work to prepare for either the ACT or the SAT. But preparing for either of these tests helps our students to be college ready, which also means helping students to close any content gaps in math and English that may have resulted from pandemic learning loss. As K-12 private schools release CTP (ERB) and MAP testing data from the current school year, in addition to data we received during the 2021-2022 school year, we continue to see dips across school settings locally, nationally, and internationally in comparison with pre-pandemic data. These performance dips were equally noted in the average scores for ACTs and SATs as well as data recently released by the Enrollment Management Association regarding the SSAT for grades 5 through 11, thus we see evidence of the academic impact at every grade level. For example, the average ACT composite score for graduates from the class of 2022 was its lowest in 30 years.
Take the hard road
It’s enticing to take the easier path if it appears to be equally good, but this test-optional situation at the college level (and, quite frankly, the upper school level [grades 5-12]) needs to be examined much more cautiously. There’s much to gain by taking the harder road and proving academic mastery in multiple ways.
Here are some questions for consideration:
- What is the intention of the policies?
- Why did the policy shift occur?
- What exactly does it mean to conduct a comprehensive and holistic review of all applications? What is a whole-person admissions process? How does subjectivity factor in?
- Why have certain colleges already reverted to requiring testing?
- Is your child giving up some level of control in this high stakes process if they choose not to test?
- What other evidence of academic mastery differentiates your child’s application from their peers?
- What does it mean for your child to excel relative to your particular school setting and your child’s peers?
- Have you considered that a test-optional policy might only apply to initial admissions, but not guarantee access to certain courses or majors without eventual testing?
- Can you imagine your child starting their test preparation during late spring of senior year or the summer before their first year of college?
- How much energy are you and your family expending trying to make sense of test-optional policies rather than just committing to a testing pathway?
As we follow news and data being released from colleges about their incoming class, we are seeing a trend. Even in this test-optional landscape, there is a very high percentage of students being admitted with test scores. At some schools, it’s as high as 60%. Tulane University’s admissions site states, “Submitting ACT or SAT scores is currently optional for all undergraduate programs at Tulane. For reference, 50% of the admitted students for our Class of 2027 did not submit test scores.” But that still means that 50% DID submit scores!
Examining Test-Optional Policy Language
We’ve been voraciously reading college admissions websites, attending professional conferences and panels for educational consultants, and carefully following the chatter on our various national and international professional listservs. Most of the buzz about test-optional policies leaves out any reference to the fine print, so we’ve curated some admissions language below for your review and consideration. We are seeing some schools using very particular language about the importance of testing on their websites. For example, Boston College’s test-optional policy remains in place but at the very bottom of this page is this additional information:
At Boston College, standardized testing provides meaningful context as we evaluate candidates with varying degrees of curricular rigor across more than 8,000 high schools from which we receive applications. Our research has routinely demonstrated that the inclusion of standardized testing as part of our holistic review provides the greatest predictive value toward ensuring student success.
To that end, we will study academic performance metrics for BC’s first test-optional classes to inform future policy decisions.
To us, this indicates that having and submitting strong test scores is preferable.
Emory University’s test-optional policy:
- Submitting standardized test scores is completely optional.
- Students will not have to justify or disclose why they are not submitting scores.
- Students will not be disadvantaged in the review process if they do not submit scores.
- The timeline for changes to a student’s test optional selection aligns with their earliest decision plan, regardless of college within Emory University.
For those who choose to take an exam:
- Emory will continue to accept self-reported or official test scores.
- Emory will continue to superscore the ACT and SAT.
- Scores will be reviewed in the context of the student’s whole application.
- We expect that standardized test scores will continue to demonstrate academic preparation for many students.
Though optional, this last bullet point above surely doesn’t discount their potential value.
Columbia University’s test-optional policy:
The holistic and contextual application review process for Columbia College and The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science is rooted in the belief that students are dynamic, multi-faceted individuals who cannot be defined by any single factor. Our review is purposeful and nuanced—respecting varied backgrounds, voices and experiences—in order to best determine an applicant’s suitability for admission and ability to thrive in our curriculum and our community, and to advance access to our educational opportunities.
And just this month – on May 18, 2023 – they announced an end to their alumni interviews:
Against a backdrop of rising application numbers in recent years, Columbia College and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science have decided to discontinue their alumni interview program for individuals seeking admission. The decision, which takes effect this fall for the 2023-2024 admissions cycle, was made to ensure that all candidates have the same opportunity to connect with and learn about Columbia through the application process.
It makes you scratch your head for sure. They value a holistic and contextual application process, but they don’t need test scores to assess your academic mastery, and apparently they also don’t have the resources to support an interview to assess your personality and dig deeper into your experiences, so the review process and “algorithm” becomes rather difficult to decipher. The answer, from our perspective, is to do absolutely everything that can be done, which means taking advantage of every optional opportunity that’s appropriate and reasonable.
University of Pennsylvania’s test-optional policy:
As part of our comprehensive admissions process, we use standardized testing to gain more insight into the academic preparation of our applicants. These tests represent only one component in our admissions process in conjunction with other academic and non-academic factors.
Harvard University’s test-optional policy:
For the College Classes of 2027-2030, students may apply for admission without standardized test scores. Please read our announcement for more details on the application changes for the upcoming cycles.
If you choose to submit standardized tests, you may submit the SAT or ACT (with or without the writing component). While the College Board no longer offers Subject Tests and they are not a requirement for applying, you may submit Subject Tests taken in the last 5 years. If you choose to submit Subject Tests, it is more useful to choose only one mathematics test rather than two. Similarly, if your first language is not English, a Subject Test in your first language may be less helpful.
Within the admissions page section about standardized testing requirements, there are standardized testing FAQs. One of these questions is: “What do standardized tests and grades indicate about academic preparation for college?” Below is the 3rd of 3 paragraphs.
The SAT and ACT tests are better predictors of Harvard grades than high school grades, but this can vary greatly for any individual. Students who have not attended well-resourced schools throughout their lives, who come from modest economic backgrounds or first-generation college families have generally had fewer opportunities to prepare for standardized tests. Each application to Harvard is read with great care, keeping in mind that talent is everywhere, but opportunity and access are not.
University of Delaware’s test-optional policy:
We recommend students submit their SAT or ACT scores if they believe they show their academic potential. Students who choose not to provide test scores have the option to submit any additional evidence of academic skills in areas related to your intended major, particularly if it is math and science intensive. Such evidence may include scores on AP examinations, SAT Subject Tests, or other indications of your interest and ability to succeed in a challenging academic environment.
Suffice to say, test-optional isn’t just a yes/no question. It requires thoughtful and strategic consideration regarding the context of the student’s application.
Our Interpretation of Test-Optional Language
Even in a landscape that promotes test optionality for important reasons, these tests are still an important part of the process and can serve to well differentiate a student. Putting in the effort to close any academic gaps – perhaps related to pandemic learning loss – and then accelerate instruction to include the most advanced content tested will only set our students up to be more successful in their college classes.
Most of our students have preferred the ACT to the SAT, which also gives them the opportunity to showcase a strong writing score and yet further exceed admissions requirements. The ACT offers an optional writing section, whereas the SAT discontinued their optional writing section in June 2021.
Per University of Delaware’s policy, it’s worth noting that the College Board discontinued SAT subject tests in January 2021. And Advanced Placement (AP) tests – also a College Board product – are not readily available to students who attend schools that do not offer the AP program (and choose not to order the tests), which is the case for many private day schools and boarding schools. Faculties at these schools usually feel strongly that their own honors program is more rigorous and substantive, thus they don’t want to adhere to the College Board’s curriculum, and often these schools do not want to be involved in administering these exams. Therefore, it’s certainly not easy to find alternative ways to further showcase academic mastery broadly or in a specific subject area, which may leave a student seemingly less competitive relative to another candidate who attends a school that offers APs, IBs, or A Levels. Strong ACT or SAT scores can make a big difference in this common scenario.
How many test takers are there?
If we look at the number of students taking tests as part of their admissions process, we see that this number is on the rise. More than 1.7 million high school students in the class of 2022 took the SAT. This number of students was higher than the 1.5 million students who took the SAT in 2021 but down from 2.2 million in 2020, according to College Board, the SAT test publisher.
Similarly, the number of ACT testers is rising again. According to Higher Ed Dive, about 1.35 million students in the 2022 high school graduating class took the ACT college entrance examination, slightly more than in the previous year but far fewer than numbers seen prior to the pandemic. About 54,000 more students took the ACT test in the 2022 school year’s graduating class compared to the 2021 class. But that’s far lower than the peak of nearly 2.1 million students in the 2016 graduating class who took the exam.
Kelly Slay, an assistant professor at Vanderbilt University, conducted in-depth interviews with admissions officers in 2022 to understand how the elimination of SAT and ACT testing requirements has been playing out inside colleges and universities. Slay shared the following in an interview with The Hechinger Report: “I think the students that do have the strong test scores still do have that advantage, especially when you have a student that has strong test scores versus a student who doesn’t have test scores and everything else on the academics is more or less the same.”
Test Scores Ease Access to Certain Courses and Majors
We anticipate that colleges will continue to make changes to their test-optional policies. We have already seen some schools like MIT and Georgetown revert back to requiring testing as part of the admissions process. We are also seeing a trend at some schools where students are admitted without test scores but then asked for scores when a student wants to apply to certain programs within a college or in determining course placement upon enrollment. This surprise request can be incredibly stressful for students their senior year who will have to grapple with the question of taking the test or choosing another course of study.
The UC system announced that they are not accepting SAT and ACT test scores as part of the admissions process, but their admissions website further includes, “If you choose to submit test scores as part of your application, they may be used as an alternative method of fulfilling minimum requirements for eligibility or for course placement after you enroll.” In other words, applying without testing doesn’t mean that testing is ultimately avoided. This is just one example where the fine print differs from the public buzz.
Howard University’s admissions website states that all applicants must complete one or more of five (5) general admissions requirements. One of them states that standardized testing (e.g. SAT, ACT) may be “required by the university/the intended academic program.” Many students aren’t sure about their intended course of study at the point of submitting an application, so if a student decides later into their senior year, for example, that they want to major in architecture, then they encounter this policy:
Students may be eligible for admission by presenting acceptable secondary school records which should include: 3 units of English; 3.5 units of mathematics with 1.5 to 2 units in algebra; 1 unit in plane geometry and trigonometry; 1 unit in a foreign language, and 5 units in any academic courses counted toward graduation, preferably in solid geometry, physics, and chemistry.
All applicants must take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and receive a minimum score of 500 in the verbal section and 550 in the mathematics section or 22 on the American College Test (ACT) equivalent. Preference will be given to applicants who rank in the upper one-third of their graduating class and have achieved a grade of C or better in the recommended high school courses.
Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business states the following admissions requirements for the undergraduate business school:
Step 2: Meet GPA and test score criteria
- Earned the required test score:
- a composite ACT score of 30, or
- an SAT score of 1370 (Evidence-Based Reading & Writing and Math)
- Earned a cumulative GPA of 3.8 on a 4.0 scale in high school. We will use the highest GPA that is sent to IU Admissions from your official high school transcript. In most cases this is the weighted GPA.
If your record does not meet the criteria above or you wish to apply under test-optional guidelines, you will need to request a review through our website to be considered for Kelley direct admission.
NYU’s Stern School of Business, for example, has particularly confusing language associated with undergraduate admissions. NYU Stern refers applicants back to the university’s main admissions page for admissions criteria. The main page proudly shares that “NYU has one of the most flexible testing policies of any college or university.” Then further down the page, one can find additional program requirements for the Stern School of Business and the Tandon School of Engineering. Students are required to submit either AP or IB exam scores or A Level scores in math and other subjects. These types of exams aren’t available to many students, in which case ACT or SAT scores must be submitted with the initial application. It’s not abundantly clear without reading the fine print carefully (and several times in our case).
How many applicants are there?
As a result of test-optional policies, application numbers are way up at competitive programs, which adds to the stressful climate that all families are trying to navigate. To get a sense of the numbers, we’ve highlighted a handful of schools below.
Applications to the undergraduate Class of 2027 grew nearly 12% over last year to more than 34,000, making this the largest and most diverse applicant pool ever, according to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.
For the Class of 2021, as a comparison, just over 21,000 students applied to Tufts University.
University of Michigan
The University of Michigan saw continued growth in the number of prospective first-year and transfer students looking to enroll for the fall 2023 term. There were 87,766 first-year students applying for fall admission this year, up 4% from the nearly 85,000 applications to the university for 2022.
The number is large by any standard: 80,790 first-year applications. It’s the most applications USC has ever received in a single year. It also represents a tremendous amount of work for USC’s Office of Admission, which thoroughly reviews every application. The number of applicants jumped 17% compared to last year, reaching an all-time high.
In February, The University of California announced that it received a total of 245,768 applications (206,405 for freshman admission and 39,363 applications for transfer admission) for fall 2023 admission.
Following two consecutive cycles of record-breaking undergraduate application growth, the University maintained strong numbers for freshman and transfer admission, though many campuses experienced slight declines, particularly among international and out-of-state freshmen and transfer applications. For fall 2023 admission, the University saw a 2.2 percent decrease (-5,411 applications) in total applications from the fall 2022 admissions cycle, where the University received 251,179 total applications (210,840 freshmen and 40,339 transfer). The largest decrease in applications was from nonresident (out-of-state and international) freshmen and transfer applicants (-4,632).
For effective college planning, which includes managing test-optional policies, it’s critical to read the fine print. Consider your own situation and what it means to excel relative to your school setting and peers, and then make a cautious and thoughtful decision with the intention of keeping doors open and avoiding unwanted disappointment or scrambling at some later point during senior year. While we know that studying for these tests is a lot of work and takes a lot of time to prepare for, they do still matter and continue to remain an important part of the admissions process. None of us has a crystal ball for what the future will hold, but we do know that while the tests are imperfect, preparing for them can help our students master high school material, gain testing confidence, and be in a position to put the most compelling and competitive application forward to gain admissions to the schools of their choice.
As you navigate your college planning process, we’re here to help! From goal setting and intention setting semester by semester, to making the most of the high school experience, to earning strong grades and test scores, to masterfully constructing essays and managing an effective application process with great project management skills, our faculty has you covered! Please contact us to discuss your planning further!
By Faya Hoffman, M.A. and Board Certified Educational Planner, and Brad Hoffman, M.S.Ed. and Board Certified Educational Planner