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What You Need to Know About Test-Optional Colleges

More Elite Schools Are Becoming Test Optional

A growing number of schools are becoming test optional. In a statement published on its website, Cornell University announced that it won’t require SAT or ACT exams for applicants to its Class of 2025. Cornell also expressed concerns about the new possible online format: “This method of testing can’t yet be validated as an indicator of college success during the upcoming cycle” citing that “differences in access to technology and timing will mean some students will have less chance to succeed through these online testing opportunities than others.”

Cornell, which is the first Ivy League school to go test optional, also made it clear that this move is temporary and that “results from the ACT or SAT might still be a meaningful differentiator in particular for students who: – live near or attend a school that will be open, and where testing will be offered, or who live near a testing center that will be offering more testing seats or dates than they did in 2019; and – have not experienced lost income for one or more of their household providers or other significant new hardships and losses during 2020.”

Princeton and Brown universities recently joined the movement and have informed current high school juniors that “they don’t expect students to take the ACT or SAT multiple times, given the limited testing dates now available.” (See Melissa Korn’s Wall Street Journal article).

While Princeton and Brown don’t expect students to take the test multiple times, they do continue, however, to expect high test scores (if possible on one sitting) as they’ve always done. Admissions offices at elite colleges will always favor high test scores, and especially students who perform well on the first exam. Student who take the SAT or ACT many times are usually sending the signal that that they’re not taking the test seriously enough, or, worse, that they have trouble improving their scores.

Students should aim to take the SAT or ACT no more than two or three times, depending on the schools they want to apply to. After two or three attempts, admissions officers tend to discount score improvements and might even look less favorably on one’s scores. Some schools also require students to submit all of their test scores (even the scores they’re not so proud of), which is another reason for students to give the first test their best.

Becoming test-optional benefit colleges as much as (if not more than) the students who apply to them.

As our college admissions company has already explained in a previous blog post, SAT and ACT scores matter more than admissions officers want to admit when it comes to a school’s image and rank. Dropping the test requirement is bound to raise the test average, since applicants with low scores will probably not choose to submit them. Schools may also be betting that not requiring standardized test scores will attract more applicants. More applicants for the same number of spots means lower acceptance rates, which of course make a college look more competitive.

All other things being equal, a student who sends in impressive SAT scores will probably beat out someone who doesn’t. Bowdoin College—one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country, which boasts the oldest test-optional policy—says it “allows applicants to decide for themselves whether or not their test results accurately reflect their academic ability and potential.”  This same language appears on other test-optional schools’ websites. By not submitting your scores, you are, according to the folks at Bowdoin, stating that your scores don’t reflect your ability and potential. In other words, you’re telling them your scores aren’t as good as the rest of your application. This same logic applies to colleges becoming test optional because of COVID-19, such as Cornell University.

The bottom line

Applying to a test-optional school will often not increase a student’s chances of admission.

Students should not view test-optional colleges as loopholes in the application process. Similarly, students should not view COVID-19 as an excuse to slack off and stop working on their extracurricular activities. Students with creativity who can find ways to pursue their interests and passions at home will be the big winners in the next application cycle.

It goes without saying that anyone who is not a very motivated student doesn’t have much of a shot at getting into UChicago, Bowdoin, Pitzer, Wesleyan, or any of the other highly selective colleges that no longer require SAT or ACT scores. Students who are attracted to test-optional colleges because applying seems like less work will not enjoy the challenging courses at UChicago anyway (NB: many test-optional schools still require that students submit SAT or ACT scores before matriculating for “research purposes”—applicants still have to take the test!).

Until U.S. universities decide definitively to abolish the standardized test requirement, students have to embrace studying for the tests (maybe think of it as a rite of passage), and continue to prep if they haven’t taken the SAT or ACT already.

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