Should I go test-optional for college applications?

Although the coronavirus crisis has brought the idea of “test-optional” to the forefront of people’s attention, the concept is not new. If you are wondering, should I go test-optional for college applications, then this article is for you.

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Why do we take standardized tests?

Students have lamented the standardized test through the ages, especially the SAT and the ACT. What good is a test that doesn’t assess your existing knowledge? Is it humane to put students through such a stressful ordeal? What can a college really learn from a standardized test score? Is it a real predictor of future success?

First, it’s important to consider the “academic index”. Most every college has one, and it looks like this one, from Utah State:

Admissions Index Chart

The academic index is a matrix with GPA on one axis and test score on another axis. Each intersection of GPA and test score is assigned a value. Then, colleges pick a value as a loose “cut off” for their base standards. Any admissions officer will tell you that they take the time to read every application that crosses their desk. But that doesn’t mean that they must seriously consider you– if you do not meet a minimum academic index requirement, your application is unlikely to make it past the first round of cuts. 

So why is a standardized test part of this equation? The answer is simple: Colleges can’t necessarily trust a GPA alone. There are tens of thousands of high schools in America, each with its own standards. A 4.0 at an elite private academy is not regarded the same as a 4.0 at an inner city public school. On the other hand, in affluent neighborhoods, grade inflation is more likely. Colleges need an equalizer as a metric to compare apples to apples, so to speak. In theory, the SAT is fair– the same basic test and environment for everyone across the board. In practice, we know that this is far from true. Test scores carry a heavy socioeconomic bias, and test scores are not necessarily a good indicator of a student’s future success.

What does test-optional mean?

In response to the concerns of such inequities, some colleges have begun to implement a test-optional policy. When you hear the words test-optional, you are meant to believe that a test score will not be used in the admissions process. However, this is emphatically not true. 

Test-optional does not have a standardized definition. In fact, it can mean many things, depending on the college. For example, George Washington University allows test-optional, but not for homeschooled students or recruited athletes. Wesleyan is test-optional, but only for those attending American or Canadian high schools. The University of Delaware is test-optional, but only for in-state applicants.

Other schools are test flexible, but have somewhat unrealistic criteria. NYU, for example, allows students to forego submitting an SAT/ACT score if they present an IB diploma. However, IB diplomas are presented to seniors well after applications and even graduation. Therefore, this policy is mostly useless to those who aren’t taking a gap year. 

So before you decide that test-optional is the way to go, make sure you investigate a school’s individual policies to see if you qualify. 

How do schools use test-optional?

Test-optional began as a way for prestigious schools to boost their application numbers. Test-optional functions as an attractive buzzword by making a school seem more accommodating. But in practice, it allows schools to increase the number of applicants while still selecting very few applicants, thus reducing their percentage of admitted students. This practice makes a school seem more selective and can boost their rankings. Meanwhile, schools who adopt a test-optional policy also report much greater diversity among applicants, which is also a favorable metric. Moreover, schools only report the test scores that they receive. This allows schools to admit less-academic candidates (i.e. student athletes or legacy students) without their admissions statistics suffering. 

For less selective schools (i.e. schools with a 40%+ acceptance rate), an application without a test score is likely to be treated somewhat the same as an application with a poor test score. The school is most likely to choose the most favorable candidates for their first wave of admissions. Then, they will assess how many spots are left and fill in the spots with whomever remains. 

So in essence, test-optional is sometimes used as a work around to increase a college’s PR and artificially boost their standards. Alternatively, no test score is regarded in the same way that a low test score might be, which is to say that they admissions officers will only be focusing on the other aspects of your application. But in either case, the truth of the matter is this: when a school says it’s test-optional, it does not mean that a test score will not be used in the admissions process. Collegevine recently reported a study that would take two nearly-identical students (GPA, background, extracurriculars), wherein one applied test-optional and one submitted test scores. According to their findings, the student who submitted test scores was twice as likely to receive admissions and four times as likely to receive merit-based aid. While this is by no means a hard and fast rule, we can still safely suppose that for the majority of students, a test score (preferably a good one) will significantly boost your odds of admission.

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Who can benefit from test-optional?

While we strongly believe that students who submit even decent test scores will improve their admissions chances, the overall trend towards test-optional policies may be benefiting some students. 

First, if you are a student athlete (outside of the most competitive schools) or a legacy student, as mentioned above, you are likely to be admitted based on those factors already. Therefore, test-optional might not hurt you to the same degree that it would hurt a non-VIP student, so to speak. 

Second, if you are fortunate enough to not require financial aid, you might choose to go test-optional. Coronavirus has many colleges concerned about their financial futures. International students, who comprise a great deal of income for colleges, are less likely to matriculate next year. Moreover, college endowments are uncertain in the wake of an unstable economy. In short, schools are looking for full-price students and may be willing to overlook an absent test score to admit one. 

Third, if you live very close to the school you’re applying to, test-optional might be safe. Local students are more likely to matriculate, and schools are enthusiastic to admit students that they feel, with reasonable certainty, will attend. 

Fourth, if you are a student of low socioeconomic means, colleges are more likely to be understanding of an absent test score. As mentioned above, the loosening of this criteria was meant to attract more socioeconomically and racially diverse students. If that’s you, then consider the possibility of applying to more reach schools without a test score.

And fifth, if you are already in the 75th percentile for GPA/extracurriculars of students who are applying to a certain college, you may be safe without a test score. However, there is greater security in submitting a test score that aligns with the rest of your accomplishments.

Decision Step Image

What is worse, a low test score or no test score?

For our students, we recommend that if your test score falls into the 25th percentile or higher for a college, you should submit it. If your test score is lower than the 25th percentile, then you should go test-optional. Now, the 25th percentile is quite low, so that school may already be a reach for a student. But as long as you understand that the probability is low, then you can apply to your heart’s content and round out the rest of your college list with appropriate targets and safeties.

Should I go test-optional for college applications?

We at The Admissions Angle are the first to admit that there are ethical challenges associated with standardized testing. It is limited and unfair, and philosophically speaking, the move toward test-optional is likely for the best because it is bringing a greater, more diverse applicant pool to the admissions office. However, for the foreseeable future, we are committed to delivering practical advice that applies to the majority of students. 

As of now, our bottom line says that if it’s possible, you should probably submit a test score. If your test score is poor, we recommend that you study hard and try to take it again. Test-optional should only be used as a last resort under special circumstances for most students. While this might sound like a bummer, take heart that there are loads of resources you can use to improve your scores. If you can do so, you will be significantly helping yourself.

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