Test Optional Tips and Trends

Jun 3, 2021 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were 1,070 colleges that allowed applicants to choose whether or not to submit SAT or ACT scores. Over the past year, about 700 more colleges temporarily suspended their test score requirements, and at least half of those schools are currently considering extending their test optional policies. Despite the fact that life is slowly returning to normal, test optional policies seem poised to continue for the foreseeable future. How have test optional policies impacted students? Who should still take the SAT or ACT? What are other ways, besides test scores, to stand out?

Test Score Policies 

Test optional policies can vary from school to school, but generally it means colleges do not require SAT or ACT scores but will consider them if they are submitted with a student’s application. If a student opts not to include test scores, other factors become the focus of admission decisions: grades, application essays, recommendations, extracurriculars, etc. 

In some cases colleges may require SAT or ACT scores if a student is applying to a specific program of study, a student doesn’t meet a minimum GPA requirement, or a student is out-of-state. Test scores may also be required to qualify for certain scholarships. Test blind colleges, such as the University of California system, are rare and don’t consider scores at all, even if they are submitted. Students should always confirm whether or not test scores are required or will be considered if submitted.

Current Trends

With one less obligation to complete and more opportunity for those who find access to test centers or test prep a challenge, it can be tempting to believe test optional policies make things easier on applicants. The truth is much more complicated.

While it’s true that students who have traditionally been at a disadvantage when it came to scoring well on the SAT and ACT have benefitted from test optional policies, those policies have also increased competition and shifted emphasis to other aspects of the application. Nick Anderson of The Washington Post reports that the “test-optional movement has opened doors for many students from traditionally underrepresented groups,” citing increases in diversity at many colleges this past year. This includes the admission of two percent more “Black, Latino or Native American students” and students “who have significant financial need” to NYU, as well the admission of more rural students to urban universities such as The University of Chicago. Yet, as admissions grew, so did wait lists and rejections.

Data presented in the recent Preparing for College Applications, for Rising Juniors and Seniors webinar hosted by A+ and presented by A+ President Dan Ascher and College/Career strategist Linda J. Hollenbeck revealed additional consequences of offering test optional admissions. Students applying to selective colleges have been most affected, as acceptance rates at top universities, such as University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown, Villanova, and Georgia Tech have all declined due to an increase in applicants. Among those accepted, there were 70-80% of students for whom test scores were still a deciding factor. In other words, students who submit scores are getting in at higher rates. Given the continued importance of test scores, especially at the selective college level, Ascher and Hollenbeck recommend that applicants prepare for and take admissions exams, while waiting to send their test scores until they have completed the testing process.

Impact on Students

Increased competition among applicants means students who are likely to achieve less than impressive test scores, or who choose not to submit test scores altogether, must now find new ways to distinguish themselves. Good grades and impressive extracurricular activities continue to be important, but a more holistic approach to admissions means that colleges are more interested than ever in the student’s “journey.” 

Rachel B. Sobel from College Possibilities, a college counseling service for students with learning differences, explains: “Students who were most successful in the process tended to share highly personal stories in their personal statements. Essays that featured stories about how the student made a difference in some way were particularly valued. College admission officers looked with favor on evidence of character.”

Ultimately, then, students should include in their applications what best reflects their academic and personal strengths. If a test score doesn’t accomplish that, opting not to submit and focusing on other application requirements is the way to go.

How A+ Can Help

Since standardized test scores remain an important way to set a student apart from other applicants, students should still consider test prep tutoring, particularly those students who are considering applying to highly competitive schools. Additionally, students who choose not to submit test scores will need to shine in other ways, such as college application essays and grades. Fortunately, A+ Test Prep and Tutoring offers college essay services. Students seeking to boost their GPAs can also take advantage of A+’s academic tutoring and executive function coaching services. So whether you decide to submit test scores or rely on the strength of other admissions factors, A+ is here to help.

At A+ Test Prep and Tutoring, our practices are based on the latest developments in educational theory and research. We have an excellent team of tutors who can help you with standardized testing, executive functioning, or achievement in any other school subject. If you want to find out more about our services, our Client Service Directors Susan Ware and Joelle Faucette can be reached at 215-886-9188.


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