Most independent educational consultants (IECs) have been supportive of colleges and universities moving away from standardized testing to a test-optional (TO) environment which views applicants beyond the measure of SAT/ACT scores.
The call for leaving behind test scores—the “defining metric of higher education”—was that colleges could make admission decisions based on “holistic review.” Criticism of the utility of standardized tests predated the pandemic for a variety of reasons, concluding that the tests:
- Are biased against underrepresented minorities and students from more modest economic circumstances
- Are an inaccurate predictor of college performance
- Are highly coachable, thus reinforcing a bias in favor of wealthy students
- Increase stress unnecessarily, with many students thinking “this test is going to determine the rest of my life”
As we’ve observed over the past several years, removing the testing requirement, one of the big barriers to college entry, has in fact boosted diversity in the application and acceptance pools and dramatically increased applications overall.
As you can see in this chart, Colgate’s application numbers have skyrocketed over 146 percent in the last two years after going TO.
Mari Prauer, Colgate’s associate dean of admissions, shared that in addition to increased selectivity, going TO has in fact diversified the freshman class. Colgate’s domestic BIPOC numbers have jumped from 25 to 32 percent over the last year.
For colleges, what’s not to love? They receive more applications from a more diverse population, deny more students, increase their middle 50 percent test score ranges, and reduce their acceptance rates, thereby enhancing their selectivity. One wonders if before long more and more schools will post SAT 25th to 75th ranges reaching high 700s to 800!
Confusion Around Test-Optional Policies
It is a much murkier discussion for IECs. The burning questions IECs, parents, and students want to better understand are:
- Does a lack of reported test scores somehow signal to colleges that applicants “tested poorly?”
- What percentage of non-submitters are admitted relative to their numbers in the applicant pool?
- How do we know the assumptions colleges are making when they review a student who has not submitted test scores?
- How do students decide whether or not to send their scores?
- Are the more elite schools “truly” TO or do they really subscribe to a “test-preferred” policy?
- Do applications carry less weight if test scores are not submitted?
The lack of consistency among colleges regarding “to send or not to send” has caused an increasing sense of uncertainty for IECs, parents, and students.
Different Approaches to Test Optional
Johns Hopkins University, having extending its TO policy through the 2025-26 application cycle, claims that non-submitters will not face any disadvantage. According to an admissions staffer, “JHU has decided to remain test optional as students have varying and unpredictable circumstances. If an applicant has a test score that adds to the strength of their application, we invite them to share it with us. Half of our applicants in 2020 applied without test scores, and about half of admitted students came from the non-submitter group.”
Similarly, Colgate’s Prauer shared that Colgate continues to review their applications “holistically” and added “We don’t have the time to wonder why 60 percent of our student applicants are not submitting their test scores.”
Harvard offers a more nuanced statement attached to its TO policy: “SAT and ACT tests are better predictors of Harvard grades than high school grades, but this can vary greatly for any individual. Students who have not attended well-resourced schools throughout their lives, who come from modest economic backgrounds or first-generation college families have generally had fewer opportunities to prepare for standardized tests. Each application to Harvard is read with great care, keeping in mind that talent is everywhere, but opportunity and access are not.”
Harvard suggests that TO may be appropriate for some students—but not all.
MIT describes its policy “as a ‘suspension’ of their testing requirement, rather than being ‘test optional,’ because the latter term implies we are agnostic as to whether a student who has taken the exams should submit their scores; as stated above, we encourage students to send scores if they have them, because they help us make better decisions.”
If this was not clear enough, there remained little room for doubt after listening to MIT Director of Admissions David duKor-Jackson on a recent webinar describe how they review applications. The takeaway was: you better send scores or have a great reason not to.*
What This Means for IECs
Beyond interpreting individual colleges’ TO policies, we are focused on helping students interpret their scores. Applicants who submit scores are more likely to share “strong” scores, thus inflating the reported score ranges of admitted students. With the flexibility of TO policies comes the decision of not just whether or not to report scores—but to which colleges. We are spending more time deliberating how a student’s test score lands within colleges’ reported middle 50 percent ranges and evaluating whether or not their test scores support their application. Consider how those of us are advising applicants to highly selective colleges with highly bifurcated scores, for example, EBRW 650 and Math 780.
The decision to report “borderline test scores” becomes even more complicated for students applying to highly selective STEM majors with nuanced application evaluations, such as computer science, engineering, and nursing—majors where applicants are more likely to be evaluated in the context of their test scores, particularly in math. We are finding that TO has also resulted in more Hail Mary applications. Many students who may not have previously considered themselves admissible to uber-selective schools due to their test scores are now saying, “Why not?” For IECs, inflated score ranges and increasing application numbers have clouded our ability to predict outcomes.
We hope that over the next several years TO policies will become clearer and perhaps more consistent, and that the recent surge in applications will level out. In the meantime, we will continue to counsel our students on which individual factors to highlight so that they can submit their most compelling applications.
As IECs, we applaud any policy that levels the playing field for our underrepresented students. Indeed, test optional has made colleges, especially those that are very competitive, more accessible by lowering barriers to entry. And yet, “test optional” in its current form paradoxically poses great challenges to us and to many of our students.
*Update: On March 28, 2022, MIT announced a reinstatement of its SAT/ACT requirement for future admission cycles.