Every year high school juniors and their families realize their impending need for college admissions information. And with that realization comes an inevitable flurry of questions and confusion.
To be clear, this confusion is not the fault of the students or their families.
The college admissions process is so convoluted that if you aren’t willing to dedicate substantial time to sifting through heaps of information, you are destined to feel out of your depth. And - let’s be honest - learning about the college admissions process can be about as exciting as watching paint dry. (No offense Sherwin Williams.)
Because of the confusion that swirls into my inbox on a daily basis, I was unphased last week when one of my ACT students emailed me with the following question:
I hope you had a great weekend and are doing well. I looked at a list of colleges that made the ACT optional and it looks like every college I'm going to apply to made it optional.
Because of this, will I hurt my chances of getting into a college if my ACT score isn't that high? Would it be better if I didn't send my ACT scores to the colleges?
If you have any advice, please let me know 🙂
Thank you so much!
- Amber T.
The pandemic has upended life as we know it. It is unsurprising that it has muddied the waters of the already clear-as-mud admissions process.
In the absence of clear guidance, what should you do if given the option to apply to college without taking the ACT or SAT?
My short answer is take the test anyway. Do your best. Then we can discuss whether you should submit the score or not.
But, of course, the conversation around whether to test or submit scores is far more nuanced than my simple answer allows for.
This is an important discussion for all families who are navigating the admissions process so let’s consider the full context and some more meaningful ways to examine the question beyond simply doing what some lady on the internet recommended. (While I’m a highly qualified lady on the internet who’s helped thousands of students improve their ACT & SAT scores, I would prefer to equip you with information to consider and questions to ask so that you can make the best decision for yourself or your family.)
Everything You Need To Know About Test Optional Policies
As a test prep teacher who is focused on connecting her students with their best ACT and SAT scores so that they can earn higher merit aid and scholarship payouts, I am 100% unapologetically against test optional admissions policies.
I am not opposed to test optional policies because I teach test prep courses. I am opposed to test optional policies because they are, at best, confusing and, at worst, outright deceptive.
In fact, I look much more favorably on the test blind policies that some colleges have chosen to adopt. Even though test blind policies are professionally more impactful to me, at least they’re clear.
In this article, we’ll explore:
- why test optional policies are deceptive,
- how test optional policies benefit schools more than students,
- why testing required or test blind policies are the clearer, kinder alternatives to test optional policies, and
- whether or not you should submit your test scores if you’re applying to test optional colleges.
Just want the quick summary? Scroll down to the TL;DR section at the very bottom for the key takeaways.
Why Are Test Optional Policies Deceptive?
Rather than giving significant advantages to the students as they purport to do, test optional policies instead deliver themselves a slew of benefits to the college while leaving confused, frustrated students and families in their wake.
The reason that test optional policies do not support the students but, rather, the school has to do with the way that college rankings are calculated.
How Does Going Test Optional Benefit Colleges?
Average test scores are a factor in a number of college ranking methodologies, as are acceptance rates. The more selective the college is, the greater the boost to their ranking.
When colleges give students the opportunity to opt out of submitting scores, students with scores below the college’s average admitted test scores often opt to not submit. As each college’s test score averages are calculated using only the scores of the students who chose to submit and, when given a choice, lower scoring students opt out of submitting, colleges see their average admitted test scores rise.
This increases the college’s rank and, subsequently, their prestige.
But wait! There’s more!
Colleges that adopt test optional policies also often see an uptick in applications but they do not increase their class sizes in equal measure. Because they receive more applications for the same number of seats in a freshman class, the college’s acceptance rate - the percentage of students who applied that are accepted - drops.
The lower the college’s acceptance rate, the more selective the school appears. This further raises the college’s perceived prestige and, in some cases, rank.
It’s worth noting that US News & World Report has amended its methodology to no longer account for acceptance rates; however, many other popular college ranking lists such as Niche and Princeton Review still use it as a factor in their college ranking methodology.
How Students Who Opt Out Get The Short End of the Stick
According to data collected by CollegeVine.com, “students who applied to a test-optional school who submitted scores above the 25th percentile were accepted at roughly two times the rate of students who applied without submitting scores (this is for students with similar profiles otherwise).
Somewhat surprisingly, even students who submitted scores below the 25th percentile were accepted at a rate 1.25 times that of students who did not submit test scores. That indicates that test-optional schools still prefer that students do submit scores.”
Students who chose to opt out of sending in their scores thinking that the choice of sending in scores was truly theirs to make receive rejection letters at higher rates than many of their fellow applicants who submitted.
This is critical to understand before you decide whether or not to test - not after.
But...wait...there’s still more...
Many schools that have gone test optional for admissions fail to mention as a part of the admissions process that opting out of testing de facto eliminates a student from merit aid considerations.
A 2018 NACAC report states: “well over half of all No-Need students were offered some gift aid, but No-Need Non-Submitters were less likely than Submitters to receive gift awards.”
In other words, if admitted, students may come to realize that they never went a step further to explore the impacts of opting out on their scholarship eligibility before it was too late. Now they’ve been admitted to a college but may have a larger tuition bill than they’d anticipated.
I’m a fan of the ACT and SAT because they are the keys that open doors to Scrooge McDuck levels of cash for some students and run-of-the-mill thousands for others.
Often you’re opting out of free money if you do not submit your ACT or SAT scores even if you are able to be accepted to the college without your test scores.
Every college’s admissions policies and scholarship policies are different so, if you’re considering opting out of testing, do your due diligence before making your final testing decision because your choice can have four-, five-, and six-figure implications.
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Coronavirus and Test Optional Policies
While I feel that test optional policies are deceptive for the reasons I enumerated above, I also think that the pandemic caught us all unprepared. I do believe that most colleges were genuinely attempting to help their students by adopting test optional policies for the Class of 2021.
Listen - nobody should put their health at risk for a test in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis. And colleges rightly recognized the genuine barrier to testing in place for many students during the pandemic. While I would’ve much rather seen test blind options in place instead of test optional, that’s just my personal preference.
Many universities have stated their intent to view their new test optional policies as pilot programs. In fact, according to FairTest.org, over half of all colleges and universities have shifted to test optional policies for Fall 2022 admissions.
Adopted under duress, colleges are going to see the impact of going test optional and then decide if they will continue to offer test optional moving forward or revert to their former test required policies.
The staying power of these crisis-minted test optional policies remains to be seen.
Test Optional And Its Effect on Diversity and Equity
So why are test optional colleges applauded so fervently in the media when, in fact, there’s a shadier game at play?
In “normal” times (i.e. before Coronavirus), it came down to the stated intent of test optional policies which is to create more equity and diversity on college campuses.
I am certainly in favor of equity and diversity across our college campuses but - as with so many things - it’s challenging to tell if the lofty ideal is being delivered in reality.
If you’d like to see some of the disparate views about how well equity and diversity is being delivered by way of test optional policies, here are a few articles that delve into the particulars:
- How Do Test-Optional or Test-Flexible Policies Affect Access and Opportunity?
- Test-Optional Admissions Won’t Level The College Admissions Playing Field
- Test Optional Offers Benefits But It’s Not Enough
What is clear from these articles is that test optional policies alone can’t deliver equity and diversity. Making significant strides towards inclusion requires comprehensive admissions reforms and testing policies are one small part of the conversation.
Why Test Required and Test Blind Policies Are a Better Alternative
Before we go any further, let's clearly define the differences between the three different types of testing policies colleges are enacting.
- Test optional colleges leave the decision regarding whether or not to test in the hands of students and their families. If tests are taken and scores are submitted, those scores can and will be considered as a part of the admissions and merit aid process. At these colleges, it is possible to be accepted without scores but be removed from consideration for merit aid without them.
- Testing required colleges clearly state that applicants must submit test scores in order to be considered for admission. These scores are one data point that will be taken into account as a part of the holistic admissions review process. Merit aid may be awarded, in part, based on the test scores submitted in your application.
- Test blind colleges do not consider test scores as a part of their admissions process. They are not a factor in admissions decisions at that school. Typically, test blind colleges have amended their merit aid requirements to reflect the no-score policies of admissions; however, at some newer test blind programs such as Loyola University New Orleans, test scores may still be needed in order to be considered for state-provided scholarships.
For me, testing required and test blind policies are far more fair than test optional policies because of this simple axiom from the wonderful Brené Brown:
“Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”
There are enough fork-in-the-road moments in college admissions where students have to decide how to spend their time and energy. The decision about whether or not to test shouldn’t be left in the hands of students and their families.
- Good parents guide their children with transparent boundaries.
- Good teachers provide defined parameters for assignments.
- Good managers state desired outcomes in no uncertain terms.
Colleges ought to show good leadership and state their admissions requirements clearly.
To increase equity and diversity, I would suggest that colleges either craft clearly articulated exemptions to their test required policies and put them in print for all to see. Alternately, they can eliminate the testing requirement altogether.
Unclear is unkind. Test optional colleges’ admissions policies are unclear and, therefore, unkind. And our students deserve every ounce of kindness we can give them on this journey.
What To Do About Testing When Applying To Test Optional Schools
As I’ve stated, the Class of 2021 testing exemptions made sense given the state of the world at the time they were adopted. While I would’ve preferred that colleges erred on the side of test blind policies for the sake of clarity, we were all being faced with a crisis and I genuinely believe we all acted as best we could given the tumult.
But what about testing decisions for the Class of 2022 and beyond?
For students who will apply to college in the fall of 2021 and after, there are two questions you should be exploring.
- Should I take the ACT or SAT if I’m applying to test optional colleges?
- If yes, should I submit my test scores to a test optional college?
1. Should You Take the ACT or SAT If You're Applying To Test Optional Colleges?
A really quick way to decide if you should test is to do a gut check.
Does it feel like you’re getting away with something by not taking the ACT or SAT? If so, that’s a sign that you should test.
At the end of the day, colleges are academic institutions. For all the vitriol against standardized tests, they are a way to measure what you know.
- Are the tests infallible? No.
- Can college admissions tests predict your future success or failure? No.
- Do we have such lofty expectations of any other test we ever take? Also, no.
From a college admissions perspective, the ACT and SAT are useful for benchmarking and validating your GPA in a world full of grade inflation.
For all the attention the Varsity Blues Scandal received, it implicated 33 parents over the span of 7 years. Consider for a moment how many more low-level, never-noticed cheating incidents are inflating students' GPAs across the country every day.
Test scores help college admissions officers verify that students' academic performances from varied high school environments at least somewhat correlate to their performance on a more controlled, standardized measure.
The system isn’t perfect, but I’d also venture that it isn’t worthy of as much derision and media attention as it receives.
Your test score isn’t a measure of your worth or a predictor of your future success, but it is a useful piece of information.
While ACT and SAT scores are important for the majority of students, they take on special weight for homeschooled students or students who have had a non-traditional school experience - like virtual school which nearly every student has had to contend with throughout the pandemic.
Let’s find a sane balance between doing your best work and also knowing when to call it quits by completing your college research and having facts regarding admissions and scholarship requirements at your disposal.
Facts are clear. Clear is kind.
Use the abundant data available to craft reasonable score goals that will help you meet your admissions and merit aid goals. Execute on that and, once you’ve achieved your target score, put the number 2 pencil down for good.
There is one exception to my testing guidance above.
If testing is genuinely a burden for you or your family in a way that college admissions officers will be able to see in the hard data that comes along with your application (i.e. family income, the student’s work history, severe learning differences diagnoses, etc.), then you truly have a decision to make. If the time, money, and effort it would take you to test could be put towards other areas that need your time and attention, you can make the decision not to take the ACT or SAT and expect to not be penalized for that decision.
Everyone else should prepare for the ACT or prepare for the SAT and take the test. Then, once you have your scores back, head to question 2.
2. Should You Submit Your ACT or SAT Scores To Test Optional Schools?
Once you have scores in hand, you have a decision to make. Should you send your test scores to your test optional colleges?
You’ll want to think about these next two questions then run the Rejection Test. Here’s how it works...
Step 1: Do you want the other aspects of your application to be considered more strongly?
Opting out of submitting scores doesn’t leave a gap in your application. Instead, the other data in your application expand in importance to fill the gap created by your exclusion of test scores.
In other words, your GPA, course rigor, personal statements, class rank, resume of involvement, letters of recommendation, etc. now stand in a much brighter spotlight.
How do you feel about that?
Step 2: Are your test scores in or above the median range of accepted students at your school?
Create a spreadsheet with every college you're applying to and their average score ranges for accepted students. Notice whether your scores fall in, above, or below the average range for each.
This step takes a little bit of time but it is important. You should have this information at hand in black and white rather than having a vague sense of where you think your scores fall.
Data is clear. Clear is kind. Follow the data!
Step 3: The Rejection Test
Take that gut check from question 1 where I asked if it felt like you were getting away with something by not testing and flip to the end of the story.
We’re going to run the Rejection Test.
This sounds horrible, but it’s really just a college admissions remix of the worst-case scenario exercise. It helps you make decisions that are in better alignment with your long-term values.
Remember the stats from the CollegeVine article? Here’s that quote again.
According to our data, students who applied to a test-optional school who submitted scores above the 25th percentile were accepted at roughly two times the rate of students who applied without submitting scores (this is for students with similar profiles otherwise).
Somewhat surprisingly, even students who submitted scores below the 25th percentile were accepted at a rate 1.25 times that of students who did not submit test scores. That indicates that test-optional schools still prefer that students do submit scores.
For a slightly different take, former college admissions officer and independent counselor Sally Rubenstone advises that students who test above the 50th percentile submit their scores, with two notable exceptions for underrepresented students and recruited athletes.
In this example, Ms. Rubenstone gives feedback regarding when to submit ACT & SAT scores for a particular student’s test optional college list which may be helpful for you to read.
Bearing in mind that students who submit their scores are up to two times more likely to be accepted compared to peer students according to the College Vine data and that a former admissions officer advises that students err on the side submitting if their scores are at or above the 50th percentile at a test optional college, ask yourself how will you feel if you don’t submit your scores and are not accepted to your favorite test optional college?
Use your imagination a little bit. Imagine seeing the subject line of an email from your favorite college and it’s a rejection. Just notice what the worst-case scenario feels like if you submitted scores.
What does that do to you? Does it feel heavy or awful or surprisingly unimpactful? Where do you feel it in your body? Are any nagging what-ifs popping up? (What if I had taken the test? What if I had spent more time practicing the oboe? etc.)
Now run The Rejection Test the other way. How will you feel if you don’t submit your scores and are not accepted?
Ask yourself the same questions as before and notice how it feels different.
For me, it feels infinitely better to play all my cards and hear from a college that I’m legitimately not a good fit for their school than to sit and wonder if the test scores I withheld would’ve made the difference.
If I present a college with my full, true self and the college says “We just don’t think you’ll be happy on our campus. We’re not the right for you.” I view it as a blessing. Knowing conclusively where I don’t fit puts me one step closer to where I genuinely belong.
But that’s me. You may come away from that exercise with a completely different feeling. That’s great! Follow your gut because this is your journey. At the end of the day, you need to make informed decisions that clearly align with your values.
There are many things we can’t control in the college admissions process, but the research-backed decisions we make are not one of those things.
As long as you take the time to make thoughtful, informed decisions as you move through this process, I have complete faith that you will end up at a college that is the perfect fit for you.
TL;DR | The Key Takeaways
College admissions testing policies should be clear. Period. As an applicant, you should be spared protracted agonizing decisions so you can save your critical thinking mojo for when you’re holding the number 2 pencil - or not, as the case may be. The testing question is one that college admissions offices should answer, not you.
However, in the absence of clearly defined testing policies, I encourage the majority of students to take the ACT or SAT and do their best work. Unless taking the tests is genuinely prohibitive in a demonstrable way to you or your family for financial reasons or due to other circumstances, take the test.
With rare exception, I also encourage students to submit their scores. Unless you’re woefully underperforming your academic potential, would prefer to place heavier emphasis on other aspects of your application, and understand the impact non-submission could have on your merit aid opportunities, submit your scores.
Your test scores are just one data point but they are important and are powerful tools to help you on the road to acceptance letters and scholarships.
Speaking of which, you can start boosting your ACT or SAT scores and learning how they tie to cash for college right now for free. Grab the Insider's Guide to the ACT & SAT here.