The considerable growth in the number of colleges offering test-optional admissions has led many students and parents to question whether the ACT/SAT are necessary or relevant. Unfortunately, the answer is not simple, and whether a student should take these tests and submit scores has become a more complicated question.
A bit of history: test-optional admissions are nothing new. Bowdoin College became the first test-optional college in 1969, and by 2019, over 1,000 accredited schools (roughly one-third of all accredited institutions) had joined the test-optional movement. The COVID-19 pandemic then accelerated the movement, and since then many schools have remained test optional, though some have returned to having a testing requirement.
Perhaps the most critical element to understanding the current landscape is an understanding of the term “test-optional” itself. It does not mean colleges no longer want to see test scores, nor that they do not consider them. “Test free” or “test blind” are terms for schools that no longer use SAT/ACT scores at all for admissions. The list of colleges with that policy includes those in the University of California and California State systems and only a few private schools.
The term test-optional groups many colleges with different attitudes about testing under an umbrella that simply means they will review applications that do not include test scores. Bear in mind that colleges will also consider applications that do not reflect strong grades, volunteerism, leadership, or any extra-curricular activities. The question, of course, is not whether a college will accept a student’s application, but whether the application reflects as strongly as possible a student’s academic achievement and potential.
Some test-optional colleges state that students are strongly encouraged to submit scores, but that their applications will be considered complete without those scores. Other schools advise students to send scores only if they feel that their scores are an accurate reflection of their abilities. Still other schools claim that test scores, whatever they may be, can help but can never hurt a student’s chances of admission. To further muddy the waters, more than half of test-optional colleges have not made a long-term policy decision and may return to requiring tests at any point in the future… making planning difficult when considering whether to take the tests.
All of this said, the numbers suggest that many test-optional schools still have a strong bias toward students who submit scores. This is particularly true among highly-selective colleges, where students who submitted test scores are sometimes more than twice as likely to gain admission as their non-test-submitting counterparts. Recent acceptance rates for test-submitters at Boston College, Emory, Georgia Tech, Colgate, Davidson, and Notre Dame are more than double the rates for non-submitters at those schools. Additionally, there are many more colleges where students who submit scores enjoy less dramatic but still very considerable advantages.
So while most colleges are allowing students to apply without the SAT or ACT, it’s clear that many are still keen to make use of test scores when they can. One important reason: grade inflation. While a 4.0 GPA once suggested considerable academic prowess, extreme increases in grade inflation in the last few years mean that colleges can’t look at GPA through the same lens that they once could.
What’s more, colleges are seeing record numbers of applications. An unintended consequence of test-optional policies has been that students who formerly might have refrained from applying to a reach school because their test scores weren’t up to par now apply in droves. Colleges have seen application numbers go through the roof: for example, applications to Colgate more than doubled in the last two years, and many other colleges have seen numbers rise by 10-50%. And yet the number of students who submit test scores has declined at most test-optional schools, which means that the average score among submitters is increasing.
What this means is that selective colleges are becoming MORE selective… or at least they are showing diminishing acceptance rates. For the foreseeable future, strong test scores will remain an important differentiating factor that can substantially improve a student’s chances of admission. Students who score near the middle of (or above) a college’s published middle 50% score range will see a considerable boost to their admissions chances by sending those scores… even if they’re not required to do so.
An important side-note regarding testing: we’ve discussed the SAT/ACT only from the perspective of admissions. These test scores are often used by colleges for scholarship awards as well, and they may be required for merit award consideration even at colleges that do not require scores to apply for admission.
The good news: the test-optional movement means that college admissions are becoming more flexible. While it’s unrealistic for a student to expect to get into his or her reach schools based on a decent GPA alone (or even GPA and a typical slate of activities), there are more paths to a “yes” outcome than there used to be. Students who demonstrate academic passion, great leadership, dedication to their communities, or other impressive traits don’t have to fret over a weak test score dragging down their application as they once did. Students whose test scores are not going to accurately reflect their abilities now have options for building an application that doesn’t highlight their weaknesses. Students who won’t have great scores to send can explore other ways to bolster their applications.
At the end of the day, the test-optional movement has not created an admissions environment where students can ignore the SAT and ACT, but it has created more options. Speaking with a college counselor, testing professional, or even admissions officer from a school of interest can help students and parents make sense of what effect submitting scores might have in a given situation.
Scott Moser is the founder of Moser Educational Services, which has offered one-on-one academic support, tutoring, and test preparation services to students in the Denver area in-person and around the world remotely since 2007. Moser focuses on building tailored programs around individual students’ needs and goals. More information can be found at www.mosereducational.com or by calling 720-605-6622.