As things are moving quickly in the world of college admissions, we’re hearing a lot about colleges deciding to go test-optional, even if it’s just a temporary move.  What do colleges mean when they say they are test-optional, and who benefits from a test-optional admission process?

Why do colleges go test-optional?
Colleges decide to go test-optional for different reasons.  There are studies showing different data about what the SAT and ACT actually indicate, whether or not they correlate to students’ ability to succeed in college.  Additionally, some studies indicate that the tests discriminate against different types of students.   You may believe the tests show intelligence, and that a higher score means you’re smarter than someone who has a lower score, but that’s not necessarily how colleges interpret test scores.

When colleges announce a new test-optional policy, they may be attempting to level the playing field, to attract more students who don’t necessarily have access to (sometimes expensive) test preparation tools and tutors.

This part is important:  when colleges adopt a test-optional admission policy, they will look even more closely at your transcript:  not only the grades you earned in all of your courses, but also the classes you chose to take, in the context of what was available to you.

They’ll see from your school profile which advanced classes are offered, and sometimes, the grade distribution within your school.  That is to say, what percentage of your school has an A average, a B average, and lower.  This tells them if there’s a problem with grade inflation at your school.

So who benefits from test-optional admissions?

  • Students who have learning challenges, such as dyslexia, ADD, processing issues, testing anxiety, or any other specialized situation can benefit from test-optional admissions, because their scores often do not correlate as closely with their academic performance in school.
  • Students who have very strong grades but for some reason, don’t test as strongly.  Test-optional policies are less helpful to students who have mid-range grades, like Bs and Cs.
  • Students with a very strong, mostly or straight-A transcript do well in a test-optional situation.
  • Students who have REALLY strong and interesting involvement in extra-curricular activities.  Students who really have a story to tell about how they’ll contribute to a college campus in a special way.  This means the way you describe your extra-curricular activities and the essays you write are extremely important, in a test-optional college admission process. (more on extra-curricular activity descriptions here)

What do college admission officers think about test scores?
Because many of us have been conditioned to think that higher scores are automatically better – even if we’re talking about a 50-point difference in test scores – it’s important for you to understand the mindset of the people making admission decisions and policy, and why they consider moving their colleges to test-optional:

“There are inherent inequities in standardized testing that have long been recognized by educators.  We believe this new policy aligns us with our core value of access.”

— Vassar College Dean of Admission and Student Financial Services Sonya K. Smith

“I don’t care that your best friend or the guy in your math class got a perfect score.  I don’t admit test scores, I admit people.  In a holistic process we see test scores, but we see so much more.  Don’t distill yourself to one number.  I don’t and neither should you.”

— Georgia Tech Senior Assistant Director of Admission Katie Mattli

“If applicants would like us to consider their exam results as one component of their candidacy, we will do so in a nuanced and contextual way.  If students choose not to submit exam results, we will evaluate their candidacy in a nuanced and contextual way without scores.  Our holistic, committee-based approach to application review provides us with the flexibility to evaluate academic and extracurricular accomplishments within a student’s individual context.”

— Tufts University website

This is a fairly long article from the New York Times by bestselling author Paul Tough, whose book, “The Years That Matter Most:  How College Makes or Breaks Us,” was released to great acclaim in 2019.  In this article, Tough interviewed Angel Perez, who is VP for Enrollment at Trinity College in Connecticut, a liberal arts college that has successfully moved to a test-optional process over the past five years.  It’s a long read but it helps you see the admission process through a different lens. 

If you have questions about how test-optional admissions may impact your child, or about the college admission process in general, we’re happy to be your trusted experts on this exciting journey.  Feel free to give us a call or get in touch!


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