The Class of 2021 was the first to have their entire college admissions process disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, most colleges implemented test-optional policies so as to not disadvantage students who could not take an SAT or ACT admissions test. Now that their applications have been submitted, reviewed, and decided on, the results of this new approach are available to review.
So, the question we are getting more than any other right now is if a student should go test-optional this year?
The answer is complicated for some students, but in general, we say no.
Test-Optional May Not Be an Option
While more than 1300 of 2300 U.S. colleges and universities (58%) have announced they will be test optional for 2022, the top-line concern is that it is possible your target school may not be one of them. The university system of Georgia, which includes the University of Georgia in Athens and Georgia Tech in Atlanta, recently announced they will require scores starting for spring 2022 admissions and beyond. The University of Florida system has never implemented a test-optional policy and maintains this for 2022. And we think if not this year, then surely next many others will follow suit.
Admissions officers have reported that the policy is significantly more costly and labor-intensive at a time that they face severe budget pressures to do more with less staff. Historically, test scores provided an efficient screening metric at many schools. As an MIT admissions officer noted in a recent interview, test scores help the staff “more accurately evaluate applicants’ preparedness” for MIT and so students are encouraged to submit a score if they can take a test, which most can now. Without them, more staff has to be hired to spend the additional time to read through every application. NYU doubled its staff to read the additional applications it received this past year. These staff are often not professional admissions officers and do not have the experience that comes from reviewing applications for many years, which might hurt some applicants. And while many schools are hiring temporary workforces to handle the new influx of applicants, many seasoned admissions professionals, faced with increasing pressures to monetize more students and limit access to those who cannot pay, are quitting the profession.
Test-Optional Has Little of Its Intended Impact
The initial drive to offer test-optional policies developed in reaction to the perceived inequalities created by admissions tests. By eliminating the need to submit test scores, the thinking went, racial and socio-economic diversity on campuses would increase. Unfortunately, long-term research has shown only a 1% net increase in Black, Latino and Native American students at schools reviewed between 2005-2016 versus those who did not implement a policy. The share of students qualifying for Pell Grants also increased by only an additional 1% at these schools, and ultimately only 20-30% of students opted to not submit scores.
Earlier research showed similar results and that test-optional policies enhance the perceived selectivity, rather than the diversity, of participating institutions, because as we saw this spring, the policy tends to lead to a dramatic increase in the applicant pool for a school while the number of students admitted does not increase, which really only benefits the schools’ finances and perceived exclusivity.
In the end, the same factors that might favor a student on standardized testing also favor them in their academics, school selection, tutoring, extra-curricular activities, and access to athletics. Removing one part of this system does not improve the overall bias towards under-represented student populations. A recent Stanford study found that a student’s essay quality more closely aligned with their affluence than their SAT scores.
While the value of increased selectivity versus the hassle of additional applicants may make sense for a Harvard, it will likely not pass muster at other schools who have fewer resources to support the effort. With the increased costs of the policy and the financial pressure on admissions staff mentioned above, many institutions may decide the gains are not worth the costs, especially at larger institutions.
But even if the policies stay, students are better off submitting scores in almost all cases.
Test-Optional Students Did Not Fare as Well
Our feedback from families so far has been that students who did not submit test scores were admitted to fewer of the schools they applied to and received less financial aid than those who submitted scores.
An analysis of admissions data from the University of Virginia is insightful on what we think is happening. In the most recent fall 2021 application cycle, 42% of the 47,827 applicants chose not to submit test scores, and ultimately, test-optional students made up 28% of those admitted. That does not seem too bad until you analyze it further.
Based on UVA’s average freshman admissions of 9,700 students, that would mean that 25% of those who submitted scores were offered admissions, but only 13% of test-optional students were offered a spot in the UVA Class of 2025. That’s a 92% difference – nearly 2 to 1. While it’s impossible to know all the decisions and factors that lead to that disparity, it does make the choice clear for us – submit your scores if they meet the schools’ threshold.
The impact across the board is more applicants for each slot at top-schools, which likely depresses the chance that any test-optional student will get admitted.
If You Do Go Test Optional
We only recommend students go test optional if they struggle with testing and cannot receive accommodations, and in some cases, for other students to consider not submitting a score if the school they are applying to is well above their score range.
For those going test-optional, a recent NY Times article notes that, in the absence of test scores, admissions staff “drilled deeper into not only high school grades, but also the rigor of courses taken in high school as well as personal essays and recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors.”
Students opting for test optional should be aware that every other part of their application will receive deeper scrutiny, especially their grades, courses, and essay. With many current sophomores and juniors carrying pass/fail grades on their transcripts from 18-months of incomplete schooling, academic achievement needs to be a primary focus over the next 6-12 months to demonstrate college readiness in the absence of test scores.
Students on the fence about going test optional should also consider using test scores for their target and safety schools and going test optional for their reach schools if their scores are out of the school’s normal score range. Since you can choose to send your scores at any point, you can wait to decide this once you know your school list, their policies for 2022 admissions, and how they treated test-optional applicants this past year.
Take a Practice Test
Before dismissing testing completely, a student should always take a practice test for both the SAT and ACT to see where they are already scoring. Based on this data, each student can make the best decision on whether test scores can support their overall admissions goals.
Everest offers diagnostic tests for students who want to get a detailed analysis of their test potential. Read more about our diagnostic process and register for practice testing.