High school students are stressed about when they will be able to take the SAT and/or ACT test again, but there is some good news during the COVID-19 pandemic .
A steady stream of colleges and universities have been announcing that they will not require SAT or ACT test scores for the 2021-2022 school year and possibly beyond that admission cycle.
The University of California, with its nine undergrad campuses, is the biggest institution to drop the standardized test requirement. Among the most well-known schools to drop the requirement, at least temporarily, are Cornell University , Boston University, Tulane University and University of Southern California (USC).
What the test-optional trend means for students
There is more to this test-optional story than the sentiment, “Oh goodie, my child might have more college options now!”
In exploring what the test-optional environment might mean to families, I recently interviewed Andrew Belasco, the CEO of College Transitions, a college consulting firm based in Georgia, that advises families across the country. You can watch the interview below.
Belasco, who received his PhD at the University of Georgia’s Institute of Higher Education, has previously conducted peer-reviewed research into the test-optional phenomenon. His research, released in 2014, could indicate who will benefit from today’s embrace of test-optional policies.
You can read my 2014 post on Belasco’s research here:
Colleges that are dumping the SAT and ACT
A stunning string of colleges and universities have announced they are becoming test optional for the next admission cycle. Some are saying this will be an experiment without committing to making it permanent, but I’d be shocked if most, if not, made the policy permanent.
Some schools that have switched to test-optional admissions in recent times include:
- Amherst College
- Boston University
- Carleton College
- Case Western Reserve
- Chapman University
- Claremont McKenna College
- Clarkson University
- Cornell University
- Davidson College
- Indiana University
- Michigan State University
- Northeastern University
- Oberlin College
- Oregon State University
- Pomona College
- Portland State University
- Rochester Institute of Technology
- Rhodes College
- Scripps College
- Suffolk University
- Swarthmore College
- Tufts University
- Trinity University
- University of Oregon
- University of Richmond
- University of Southern California
- Vassar College
- Virginia Tech
- Williams College
More than 1,200 test-optional colleges exist
While the pandemic has prodded more schools to ditch their requirement for the controversial standardized tests, more than a 1,200 schools already had test-optional policies in place.
You can find the entire list of test-optional schools at Fairtest.org, which is a nonprofit that advocates against standardized tests and advises colleges on how to break their reliance on them.
Many of the institutions that are test-optional are non-selective, which means that mediocre test scores most likely wouldn’t hurt an applicant’s chance for admission. There are, however, a large number of highly selective schools which are test optional, with the most being concentrated among liberal arts colleges.
Liberal arts colleges evaluate applicants holistically and can spend more time with each application. The absence of test scores won’t be as big a deal for an admission office at a liberal arts college as it would be at, say, state universities that are typically heavily dependent on test scores and grade point averages. The vast majority of liberal arts colleges are now test optional.
Here is a screenshot of Fairtest.org’s list of test-optional liberal arts colleges that was updated on May 14.
Research universities and test-optional policies
Highly selective universities have been slower to embrace test-optional policies, but the momentum has been strong since the pandemic.
Here is a screenshot from FairTest.org of national universities that are test-optional:
One factor when considering the test-optional route is money. At some institutions, applicants might not be eligible for merit scholarships if they don’t submit their test scores. Some institutions might reserve top awards to test submitters.
If students plan to sit on their scores, they need to be competitive with their GPA and other admission qualifications. A weak candidate who doesn’t submit scores will not enjoy an advantage any more than someone with the same GPA and ACT/SAT results.
When students aren’t sure whether to submit scores, the best strategy is to contact a school’s admissions representative.
When comparing your test scores with previous average scores at a test-optional college, keep in mind that these scores are probably inflated. That’s because almost all colleges only calculate the scores they receive. Obviously, the students who don’t turn in their test scores have lower scores that will bring down the college average.
Diversity and test-optional policies
Pre-pandemic, the most popular reason that college administrators cite for implementing test-optional policies is to attract a more diverse student body. Overall, how students do on the SAT and ACT is highly correlated with income.
So if an institution eliminates the testing requirement, minority and first-generation students should enjoy a better chance of getting into these more selective schools. Colleges and universities also embrace test-optional policies to help boost their recruiting efforts and make themselves look more selective.
A paper published in The Journal of College Admissions suggested colleges that switch to a test-optional policy see an immediate 10-20% hike in applications. Generating that spike in applications normally would cost up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in marketing.
Belasco’s research suggests that the diversity argument doesn’t necessarily hold up. Belasco looked at 180 liberal arts colleges that included 32 test-optional institutions. The test-optional colleges turned out to be no more diverse than those that required the standardized tests.
“Our findings suggest that test-optional admissions policies as a whole have done little to meet their manifest goals of expanding educational opportunity for low-income and minority students,” Belasco said.
“However, we find evidence that test-optional policies fulfill a latent function of increasing the perceived selectivity and status of these institutions. In doing so, these policies may serve to reproduce and maintain the current social structure.”
What’s going to happen?
I predict the pandemic will push more universities to follow the lead of these research institutions and the University of California. The UC system announced in May that it is going to explore creating its own test to replace the ACT and SAT, which could represent a significant challenge to the ACT/SAT.