Despite the prevailing headlines that most schools have gone test optional and college admissions tests are no longer required, the truth is that taking a college admissions test, whether an ACT or SAT, and submitting the results with their applications will probably help most students who are considering applying to a school with any selectivity.
Why Are School Still Test-Optional?
In 2020, as pandemic restrictions prevented many students from accessing test sites, most schools opted to allow students to forgo submitting test scores out of necessity if they wanted any kind of applicant pool. In Maryland, only 32 percent of applicants using the Common App that year submitted test scores. The change at so many schools that had previously required tests had the unintended consequence of increasing many selective colleges’ applicants by double-digit percentages as students who may have seen their test score as a hindrance in the past saw an opportunity open.
For Maryland students applying in 2020-2021, there was an 8 percent increase in applicants using the Common App but a 31 percent increase in total applications from those Maryland students. The vast increase in applicants made these schools appear even more selective (even though their actual class size never changed). As a result, almost all of them have kept “test-optional” policies in place for the upcoming applicant classes. We caution our students however to not be fooled by the rhetoric and a feel-good term – applicants should be submitting scores in most instances.
How Are Test Scores Used?
Admissions tests today serve as a check against a student’s GPA, course load, and school reputation. In a system where grades are rounded, students are not ranked, and many students carry a high GPA, a test score can cut through the padded applications to demonstrate a student’s college readiness. Colleges are also aware that current applicants missed significant schooling in early high school, may have received preferential grading for work done, and could have grades on their transcript that do not reflect the learning or work done in 2020 and 2021. With few reliable tools available, colleges have come to rely on scores to validate their other observations about an applicant. For most applicants, it means that schools no longer require a certain score to consider your application, but for students who have good scores, submitting them will help validate their potential.
How Do You Navigate All the Options?
We recommend students submit their test scores on a case-by-case basis. To make that decision, a student should have a well-researched college list with several viable options for their safety, target, and reach schools. Students can then read the fine print for each school to determine if it 1) requires scores, 2) prefers scores be submitted, 3) will favorably consider scores, or 4) is test blind and no scores should be sent.
Here are some examples of language you might see on a college’s site:
Georgetown: “Georgetown University requires submission of SAT and/or ACT scores as part of our holistic application review process. Candidates for admission should submit official score reports from the College Board and/or ACT.”
This group is small, but recent returns include MIT, Georgetown, the entire University of Tennessee system, and the University of Georgia.
Carnegie Mellon: “Carnegie Mellon University is extending our test-optional policy through Fall 2023, removing the SAT/ACT standardized testing requirement for all first-year applicants. Pursuant to this policy, students who are unable to take either the SAT or ACT or choose not to submit their standardized test scores will be considered equally for admission along with those who submit scores. While we encourage those who have been able to take the SAT or ACT to submit their scores, we also recognize that candidates who do submit scores may not have been able to take the SAT or ACT more than once as planned.”
Johns Hopkins: “If you have a test score—SAT, ACT, AP, IB, English language proficiency exams, or others—and feel it is reflective of your academic ability, we welcome any testing submission you choose to share.”
Do Not Submit
Reed College: “Reed will not require nor use testing results from the SAT or ACT in our admission review for the fall 2022 cycle.”
For those where a test score is required or beneficial, consult a school’s average test scores to see if the student is in the range. Note that score averages at selective schools have crept upwards as fewer applicants submitted scores in recent years, and those who did usually had higher scores. Checking a school’s pre-pandemic score averages would also be helpful to understand their truest range.
At this point, a decision should be made whether or not to submit a score. We err on the side of submitting given the strong evidence that those who submit scores are admitted at much higher rates than those without scores. Students without scores can also be left out of consideration for many scholarships and aid programs. Schools will also ask more of score-less applicants in many cases with additional essays or supporting information required, which can add up if you are applying to 10 schools as test-optional. A student must make the decision based on the facts known about the school and where the student’s grades and scores fall in the school’s acceptable ranges.
Test-Optional Gives Students Control
The biggest benefit for students with the wide adaptation of test-optional policies is control. For a student who struggled in school during the pandemic, having a strong test score can give them a verified method of indicating college readiness and conversely, a student who was unable to test or tests poorly can now apply to most schools with impunity. Whereas test requirements used to stand as a wall that all students had to climb over, the new test-optional paradigm instead makes these tests a gate that opens up further possibilities if a student makes the effort to prepare and take a test. Preparing for an admissions test also helps students reinforce core math, English, and reading skills that many need extra experience mastering ahead of college.
Know Your Options
We recommend students try a set of SAT/ACT practice tests to determine if taking a real admissions test is the best option for them or if they should consider going completely test-optional. Once students know their scores and which of the two tests will best support their college applications, they can use the other information on school requirements to make a final decision. We find most of our students are in a range where taking at least one SAT or ACT makes sense considering the schools where they want to apply. See our upcoming test schedule and register.