What is a Test-Optional College? (COVID-19 Update)

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In recent weeks, dozens of colleges have announced new "test-optional" policies for future applicants due to the coronavirus limiting testing availability. Knowing the difference between test-optional colleges and test-flexible colleges can help narrow down which schools you apply to—and which test scores you submit with your college application. 

 

Since the mid-2000s, universities have started adopting test-optional admissions policies, meaning students don’t have to submit standardized test scores during the college application process. While mid-range universities were the trailblazers, more highly selective schools (such as the prestigious University of Chicago) are also removing SAT or ACT score requirements from admissions considerations. 


According to the Washington Post, the main reason universities and colleges began dropping the requirement was to become more accessible. Data showed that students from wealthier families, who can afford expensive tutors and classes, are more likely to score higher on the SAT and ACT. With test-optional admissions, a wider range of students may apply and enroll, compared to previous test-focused admission practices. (Read this blog post to see the research on whether test-optional practices actually increase college access.)

 

Now that coronavirus is causing test dates to be postponed or cancelled, many colleges and universities are announcing that they won't require future applicants to submit scores - at least in the short term. Some colleges are promoting this change as a direct result of the coronavirus, while others are announcing the change more permanently. Some are calling it a "pilot" for the next few years.

 

These announcements - which are coming daily! - are good news for current high school juniors who are worried they won't be able to take the tests before applications are due in the fall. (The Washington Post reported that more than a million students are in this position!)

 

Here are the basics on test-optional admissions, for those new to the concept.

How Do Test-Optional Schools Work?

Two terms are important in understanding test-optional admissions policies: test-optional and test-flexible.


Test-optional means that the university does not require applicants to submit standardized test scores when applying for admission.


Test flexible gives students the option to to submit other standardized test scores for consideration, such as SAT Subject Tests or Advanced Placement Tests, in place of the ACT/SAT. Both terms are often (incorrectly) used interchangeably, and test flexible is often used as an umbrella term that includes test-optional as well.  


There’s also test-blind, often used to describe test-optional admissions policies. However, according to PrepScholar, Hampshire College is the only school that is test blind. At Hampshire College, students are not allowed to submit any standardized test scores at all.  


By allowing students to choose whether they submit their standardized test scores, in theory colleges are evaluating students based on their success, given the resources they had access to.


However,  not all test-optional admissions policies are test-optional for every applicant. Colleges may differentiate between international and domestic applicants, or only consider test scores for applicants with certain GPAs.

 

How Do I Know Which Colleges are Test-Optional?

FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, is a nonprofit that aims to mitigate the misuse of standardized testing. They’ve compiled a database of universities that are test-flexible and test-optional, as well as a categorization system for whether they have a GPA requirement and if test-optional and test-flexible admission policies are available for out-of-state students.

 

Fairtest also refers visitors to to a list of schools that are test-optional for international students.

 

Now, FairTest is updating its lists daily to incorporate coronavirus-related news - and has a separate section for colleges that are only switching to test-optional for Fall 2020 admissions (in other words, students in future classes may be required to submit test scores).

 

Should I Submit My Standardized Test Scores?

Some colleges that are test-optional still require standardized test scores for merit-based scholarships or grants. If you’re planning to apply for merit-based financial aid, call the school’s financial aid office and ask whether standardized test scores are required for their merit scholarships. Read more about test-optional and financial aid in our blog post here.


For the most part, there is no special process a student has to go through when electing not to submit their scores at a test-optional school. At Bowdoin College, admissions officers holistically evaluate every piece of the student’s application they receive. If a student’s application contains test scores, they are evaluated; if not, it does not count against the student in any way. In the class of 2018, 30 percent of enrolled students chose not to report their standardized test scores.


According to College Transitions, by not submitting your test scores, colleges will place more emphasis on the other aspects of your application, like your transcript.

 

If you feel confident that your application stands out without your standardized test scores, or if you feel that your test scores take away from the rest of your application, then consider not submitting them. Speak to a college guidance counselor to help determine your best course of action.


 

Photo by biologycorner on Flickr.

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