The Rise in Test Optional Admissions

Directional sign for admissions office under arched university sign

The value of SAT and ACT scores as a factor in the college admissions process continues to be hotly debated. The College Board recently instituted dramatic revisions to the format of the test in response to overwhelming criticism as to the test’s ability to assess college readiness. Moreover, most studies have found that there is not an overwhelming correlation between standardized test scores and first-year grades. For colleges that admit both “submitters” and “non-submitters,” differences in college performance and graduation rates were statistically insignificant. According to William Hiss, former Dean of Admissions for Bates College, “The human mind is simply so complex and so multifaceted and fluid, that trying to find a single measurement tool that will be reliable across the enormous populations of American students is simply a trip up a blind alley.”

Not surprisingly, in the face of much criticism and studies suggesting that these three-plus hour tests do not provide much useful information about the students taking the test, we have seen more and more colleges adopting test-optional policies. In fact, according to www.fairtest.org, there are now over 850 American universities have a test optional policy for admissions, and the trend is slowly growing. These schools have decided that factors other than testing are better indicators of future collegiate success. These factors include not only high school GPA and the type of level of classes taken, but also other interests that have been pursued to a higher level whether in music, sports, community service, or specialized academic pursuits such as debating or math competitions.  Test-optional schools permit applicant to submit their SAT or ACT scores, but do not require them. So-called “selective” schools with a competitive application process that have adopted this policy include Bowdoin College, which pioneered the concept way back in 1969, Brandeis, Wesleyan, and George Washington University.

Individual policies vary. Some test-optional schools may still require scores for certain applicants such as those who are out-of-state or outside of the U.S, those seeking merit-based financial aid or scholarships, or those pursuing specific majors. Other schools require students to submit materials in lieu of SAT or ACT results. Submissions may include AP, SAT Subject test scores, IB higher-level exam scores, or an academic portfolio that includes a writing sample and a sample of a scientific or quantitative work. Letters of recommendation, interviews, and writing samples may also be requested. Some universities require a minimum GPA and a top class ranking in order to “opt out” of submitting scores. Several colleges do not require standardized testing from international students and/or those educated overseas, so applicants should check each college’s individual requirements carefully.

Test-optional schools advocate that their policies promotes diversity, because they do not summarily reject students who test poorly or who may not have access or the financial resources for test preparation. Historically, minorities and disadvantaged groups have scored lower on these exams. Many admissions officers believe that these students are often at a disadvantage because of a lack of coaching and availability of test prep courses. Other student groups who traditionally underperform on standardized tests are women, those with learning disabilities, and first-generation college applicants. There is also evidence that correlates test scores with a family’s income level.

Although test-optional policies increase the diversity of the applicant pool, some have raised concerns about its potential for manipulating college admissions data. Because the elimination of test score requirements will likely increase the number of applications a college receives, the school is able to reject more applications. By lowering its acceptance rate, a school appears to be more selective. This, in turn, improves a school’s standing within such rankings as the annual U.S. News and World Report. Also there are studies that have purportedly shown that making testing optional neither increase campus diversity nor improves graduation rates or average GPAs.

Also, optional test score submission policies will actually raise the average SAT and ACT scores at a university, since the scores are cherry-picked. Only those students that test well send them in. Some experts argue that schools should drop testing requirements all together, instead of letting the applicants decide whether to submit them. Hampshire College is the only selective university in the country that is completely test-blind; they do not look at scores at all.

If you are interested in applying to a test-optional university and think that your scores might hurt your chances, don’t submit them. Here’s a good rule of thumb: The more well-rounded you are, the better your chances of impressing admissions without test scores. Hold back your scores at more selective schools if they fall below those of the top third of accepted students, and at less selective schools, if they fall below the median score. Remember, you may still need to submit your scores to qualify for financial aid, scholarships, or to determine your class placement.

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