The way students are applying to college in a post-COVID world is different in almost every aspect, including what information a student decides to share with colleges during the application process. The largest change around college admissions recently has involved the presence of an “option” for students to submit or not submit an ACT or SAT score on their application. In the months before the COVID pandemic, only around 7% of colleges in the United States had some kind of “test-optional” policy. Since 2020, students have seen a rise in the number of universities including this “test-optional” policy in their college admissions process, but many are uncertain as to whether their application is best with their test score or without. We know the college application process can be anxiety-inducing for many students and their families, and the question of whether to submit scores or not can add another layer of uncertainty. Many students know that their application is meant to communicate why they would be a great addition to a college’s campus, and an ACT or SAT score can be a great way to assert their level of college readiness to schools concerned with student success and retention. But when a student’s test score doesn’t meet a school’s published standards, it can be challenging for a family to decide what “test-optional” means for them.
While most colleges with test-optional policies are seeing an increase in their number of applications, they are not increasing the number of spots available in the freshmen class. This means that their admittance rate will lower, making them appear more competitive–and boosting their rankings on the US News and World Report. In this case, it’s important to note that most colleges with a test-optional policy are not “test-blind.” Meaning, they are still considering test scores for the students who choose to submit. In a competitive atmosphere, students are being compared to thousands of other students. Most admissions’ representatives are likely looking at a few factors in an application–GPA, academic rigor in the student’s school courses, involvement or leadership in extracurricular activities or athletics, and a written essay. For many of our students with a high GPA (above a 3.8), who have taken several Honors or AP classes, and are involved in 2-3 clubs or activities, their application does not look significantly different than thousands of other applicants. For the students who choose to submit test scores, they’re adding in an extra component to those factors, to hopefully rise above some of their peers. The SAT and ACT organizations have compiled a significant amount of data over the years to show that their test scores predict college readiness and success, something that admissions officers are looking for. For students who do not submit a test score, admissions offices are often to assume that the student’s test score was not high enough (compared to their typical standards), which may place them lower than a student with the exact same credentials but who submitted a score.
In the past year, families have likely heard conflicting stories on when or where to apply test-optional. When it comes down to the data, we find that many stories–whether anecdotal or in the media–are misrepresenting the success of test-optional policies. While more students than ever are applying to colleges, including highly selective schools, many universities aren’t making it clear what percentage of accepted students applied without test scores. Admissions’ professionals are estimating that as many as 85-90% of accepted students still submitted ACT/SAT scores to test-optional colleges over the past five years. It looks as though only about 10-15% of accepted students did not submit scores. Well-known higher-ed journalist and author Jeff Selingo’s recent newsletter to the class of 2021 included the following information:
“By the numbers: In general, my discussions with deans at about a dozen selective colleges over the last few weeks found that about half of their applicant pools applied without test scores. In every case I heard so far, students with test scores got accepted more often. In some cases, the admit rate was twice as high for students with test scores vs. those without.”
Several examples he noted were Emory College (with a admit rate of 17% for students with test scores and 8.6% for students with no test score), Colgate University (with an admit rate of 25% for students with test scores and 12% for students with no test score), and Georgetown University (where 93% of admitted students had submitted a test score).
In understanding why a college might advertise themselves as test-optional but admit mainly students with test scores, it’s important to consider the times. Academic rigor varies from school to school, even teacher by teacher, so colleges may have difficulty differentiating between students from different high schools with the same GPA or courses. Grading systems can also look different, depending on a student’s school. For example, some schools use a 95-100 scale for a letter grade of A, while others use a 90-100 scale. It may be challenging to compare a 4.0 GPA between schools with scales that are different in this way. We also have to assume that when schools shifted to virtual learning in 2020 and 2021, GPA may be a less predictive tool than it has been in the past. Some high schools implemented pass/fail grading systems, assignments or projects were graded with certain levels of leniency or shifting expectations, and cheating was more common than ever before. In these changing times, the SAT and ACT have been a constant for comparison-sake. A student’s test score on the SAT and ACT can speak to their strengths in a way that a GPA may be limited.
Because of these factors, applying to a test-optional college does not mean you shouldn’t take the ACT or SAT, or submit scores. Having a test score is valuable if you’re hoping to differentiate yourself as a strong candidate. Even just taking the ACT or SAT gives you the opportunity to decide if submitting scores is best for you. We recommend researching what competitive scores are for the schools you’re planning to apply to. If submitting the right test score can improve, or even double, the chances of getting accepted, you may be wondering what is a “competitive score” for the college you’re considering? We recommend starting by looking at a college’s 25th to 75th percentile score ranges from the previous year’s incoming class. The range from 25th to 75th percentile can help you establish a benchmark. If you meet or exceed that score range, we recommend submitting your score. High scorers can benefit from submitting their scores to put excellent grades into context or to demonstrate academic strengths if a student’s GPA or academic rigor isn’t as high as it should be. If your scores fall under the 25th percentile, we recommend calling the college’s admissions office and asking about your student’s specific situation. Many college admissions advisors can help students determine whether a specific test score would help or hurt their admission potential, so don’t be afraid to communicate with schools directly.
For specific questions about your student and colleges’ test-optional policies, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.