Last year, 41 colleges and universities joined the test-optional movement, no longer requiring applicants to submit the SAT or ACT when applying for admission. Broadly speaking, test-optional admissions policies leave the decision to submit standardized test scores up to the student. It should not be confused with test-blind, which describes admissions policies that do not take test scores into account at all. Not all test-optional policies are the same, but the majority fall into one of two categories: they make standardized test scores optional for all students or only for students who meet a certain academic threshold (e.g. a high school GPA of 3.0 or above).
As of summer 2019, more than 1000 accredited colleges and universities are test-optional, test-flexible, or otherwise de-emphasize standardized test scores in admissions decisions. This is great news for students with otherwise strong applications but whose test scores are not to their advantage for one reason or another. Perhaps they’re not good test takers, or they lack the means to afford expensive tutors or test prep classes, for example. Test-optional admissions policies leave it up to the students to decide if their test scores accurately reflect their academic abilities. For some, this can make the college application process that much more confusing. How can you decide whether to submit your test scores if the school is test-optional? Do schools treat students who don’t submit their test scores differently in the financial aid process? This article explains the test-optional movement with a focus on how it might impact you in the financial aid process. Hopefully, it will help you develop the right strategy for using test-optional admissions policies to your advantage.
Test-optional: does it really increase access?
First, let’s examine the motivation behind test-optional policies. Many applaud the test-optional movement for promoting accessibility in higher education. Performance on standardized tests has been consistently linked to wealth and socioeconomic status, which is why organizations like FairTest claim that test-optional policies reduce admissions barriers for underserved students. Others, however, are more cynical. Test-optional policies, once adopted, lead to increases in the number of applications. In addition, students who choose not to report their test scores are usually the ones who fared worse than average on the SATs or ACTs. Test-optional policies, critics argue, improves the perceived selectivity of the institution by leading to lower admissions rates and higher average test scores of the school’s incoming freshman class. In other words, schools may be embracing the test-optional movement out of self-interest, because it improves their rankings.
One oft-cited study by Syverson, Franks, and Hiss (2018) found that out of the 28 institutions studied, 61 percent of the test-optional institutions saw an increase in the enrollment of underrepresented minority students greater than that of test-requiring peer institutions (35 percent of test-optional institutions fared worse than their test-requiring peers). There was a similar yet smaller increase in the enrollment of Pell recipients, with 50 percent of test-optional institutions increasing the proportion of Pell recipients more than their test-requiring peers and 36 percent faring worse than their test-requiring peers.
Another study by Belasco, Rosinger, and Hearn (2014), however, takes a more cynical view. Analyzing data from 180 selective liberal arts colleges, the study found that, on average, test-optional colleges enrolled a lower proportion of underrepresented minorities and Pell recipients than test-requiring institutions. Adopting test-optional policies did not narrow these diversity-related gaps. Rather, it enhanced the perceived selectivity of test-optional institutions by leading to increases in the number of applications and artificially inflating the reported SAT scores of enrolled students. Although there’s some evidence that test-optional policies expand college access for underserved students, there’s enough data to be skeptical.
How test-optional impacts financial aid
Another important measure of expanded college access is, arguably, the level of financial support students receive once they arrive on campus. According to the same 2018 study, test-optional institutions treated their Non-Submitters (i.e. students who didn’t submit test scores) less generously in the financial aid process, particularly with merit scholarships (see table below). Even though Non-Submitters were generally needier than Submitters, the majority of the participating institutions gave less generous financial aid packages to the former group. This finding was consistent for both need-based financial aid and merit-based scholarships. Interestingly, even though only a very few of these institutions required standardized test scores for merit scholarship candidates, Non-Submitters were awarded merit aid at lower rates than Submitters.
Source: “Defining Access: How Test-Optional Works”
How should you interpret this data? At first glance, it seems that Non-Submitters are at a disadvantage when it comes to merit scholarships. Keep in mind, however, that even if the Non-Submitters had submitted their test scores, it may not have made a difference in their merit aid. In general, Non-Submitters have lower test scores than Submitters, so it’s difficult to conclude that reporting their scores would have given the Non-Submitters a competitive edge. In other words, you don’t have to worry too much about how test-optional policies impact your merit aid. If you’re relying on merit scholarships to pay for college, you’ll have a better chance at schools where your test scores are above average, and, if this is the case, you’ll have no reason not to report your scores in the first place.
The data on need-based financial aid is more troubling, especially since the intended aim of the test-optional movement is to increase access to higher education among underserved students. Luckily, there are many test-optional schools that promise to meet 100 percent of your demonstrated financial need. For your convenience, we’ve compiled a list, which you can find down below. In general, it’s a good idea to apply to 100 percent financial need coverage schools (after all, who doesn’t love generous financial aid packages?), but Non-Submitters should especially heed this advice. Even if Non-Submitters are at a disadvantage when it comes to financial aid, that shouldn’t matter (much) at these schools, which promise to cover the costs that you and your family cannot pay.
Test-optional schools that cover 100 percent of financial need
- Bates College
- Bowdoin College
- Bryn Mawr College
- Colby College
- College of the Holy Cross
- Colorado College
- Connecticut College
- Franklin and Marshall College
- Hamilton College
- Middlebury College
- Mount Holyoke College
- Pitzer College
- Smith College
- Trinity College
- Union College
- University of Chicago
- Wake Forest University
For a full list of 100 percent financial need coverage schools, check out this article.
How to use test-optional to your advantage
So what does the test-optional movement mean for you? For the majority of students, the test-optional movement won’t make a huge difference in their college application process. Most college counselors recommend that students take the SAT or ACT at least once to keep their options open. Only one quarter of the students in the 2018 study mentioned above chose not to report their test scores, so the majority of students are still carrying on as usual despite the rapid growth of the test-optional movement. Keep in mind that test-optional policies were created with a certain group of students in mind, and not all students are expected to take the schools up on their offer. Unless there’s some degree of mismatch between your grades and your test scores, it won’t make a huge difference whether you submit your test scores or not.
Regarding test-optional policies and financial aid, your strategy partly depends on your socioeconomic status. Students who don’t qualify for need-based financial aid rely more heavily on merit scholarships, so they have more of an incentive to submit their test scores even if the school is test-optional. However, this only makes sense if their test scores actually qualify them for the merit scholarships at their school, so make sure you check the qualifying requirements for the different merit scholarship your school offers. In addition, consider applying to schools where your academic performance is above average as you’ll have a better chance at receiving a generous gift aid package there.
Students who qualify for need-based financial aid should thoroughly research the school’s financial aid policy. Is the school need-blind or need-aware in its admissions decisions? Does it meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need? There would be little point in applying if you find out after your acceptance that you can’t afford to attend the school in question. Moreover, if you’re a low-income student, make sure the school has other policies in place to support students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds after they arrive on campus. If the school is truly committed to accessibility in higher education, test-optional admissions policies will only be a small part of its efforts.