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What you need to know about test optional admissions

student studying at laptop

Some students should still plan to study for standardized testing.

“Colleges will be test optional again this year, so I don’t have to worry about tests, right?”

In our practice we are asked a variation on this question frequently, and the answer is complicated.  First some background: virtually every college and university in the USA, as well as many international institutions, offered test-optional policies for the 2020-2021 application year due to Covid-related test cancellations, and it is looking like the trend will continue for 2021-2022 applicants (current high school juniors).

Most colleges went test optional…and meant it. Colleges pledged to complete a holistic review of applications regardless of whether students submitted scores or not, and early indications show that this is true, particularly outside the top 100 most selective colleges. Most colleges have not yet released data about test optional candidates, however, during early decision 70 percent of those admitted at Boston University and 58 percent at Boston College did not submit scores. The University of California system did not consider test scores at all. Our plan is to track this data as it becomes available to guide current juniors as they decide on where to apply.

Many colleges still care about tests. It is important to know that a few colleges adopted these policies begrudgingly; they had little choice because of widespread test cancellations. Georgetown University is an example of an institution that highly values testing. For years, most colleges have honored a policy known as score choice where students can choose which of their test scores to submit to the colleges to which they apply. Georgetown never adopted score choice, and, even this year, students who applied without test scores received a follow-up reminder that they were required to send in any or all test scores if they had been able to sit for an SAT or ACT.

Percent Applying Test optional accepted

The results of early action at Georgetown bear out their commitment to testing. According to the Georgetown’s student newspaper, The Hoya, only 7.34 percent of applicants for early action who did not submit standardized test scores were admitted. Although it was not reported what percent of students applied test optional, The Hoya said that the middle 50 percent of test scores remained steady in comparison to previous admissions cycles. The conclusion is that if Georgetown is on your college list, be prepared to study and get the best possible scores you can.

Changes in leadership impact admissions policies

The University of Pennsylvania only admitted 24 percent of those who applied test optional during early decision. Just last week, they announced that Whitney Soule will take over as their new vice provost and dean of admissions. This is significant because Ms. Soule is currently senior vice president and dean of admissions at Bowdoin College where she has worked for the past 13 years. Bowdoin was the first college in the country to adopt test optional policies in 1969. While one can never know for sure, this raises the possibility that Penn will become more friendly to test optional policies in the year ahead.   

When testing may be less important

Some students, no matter how much they practice, just do not perform well on standardized tests. This kind of testing is simply not the way for them to show what they know. It is okay for students, in consultation with their parents and counselors, to opt out of test preparation. They can still register and take the test if they like. Some students who fall into this category still choose to prepare for an SAT or ACT through a class or with a tutor, which can be expensive given the results that they are likely to achieve. Students should by all means prepare for the tests if they believe it will offer them an added benefit.

“We explain to parents that we cannot guarantee score increases because both the SAT and ACT are curriculum-based tests,” said Drew Heilpern, chief brand ambassador at Summit Educational Group. “However, students’ efforts to prepare for these tests often lead to gains in reading comprehension, and particularly math, which benefits their school work as well.”

Please let us know if we can guide you in navigating the test-optional landscape as it relates to the colleges in which you are interested.

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