As we field calls from high school seniors and their parents, we have noticed that there is substantial confusion and uncertainty about what “test optional” is, and how to navigate the college admission process during this time of extensive SAT and ACT exam cancellations.
Here are some tips and insights to demystify the landscape of standardized testing and college admission and empower you to make informed decisions:
Most Students Impacted
Although I validate the emotional intensity of studying for months to only have all exams canceled, it is important to remember that most high school seniors and juniors have been impacted by COVID-19 standardized test cancellations. Many students have never taken an exam, and many others only took an exam once and have never had the chance to re-test to increase their scores. Colleges know the complexities facing high school students, and they are keeping this in mind as they read this year’s applications and decide on 2022 applicant testing policies.
Defining the Terms: Test Optional vs. Test Blind
The vast majority of colleges in the U.S. went test-optional for fall 2021 applicants. Test optional generally means that test scores are not required and the absence of scores will not be held against the student. Strong scores can still, however, increase the chance of admission (and merit scholarships at some schools) if a student has them. In contrast, some colleges have gone test blind, which means that they will not use test scores in their admission process at all.
How are applications evaluated without test scores?
In my experience working at a test-optional college, the high school transcript had increased importance for students applying without test scores. In evaluating the transcript, many colleges will look at grades, the rigor of the curriculum, years taken in each academic subject, trends in grades, and evidence of a student’s willingness to challenge themselves. Many colleges also place added emphasis on other parts of the application, such as the activities list, essays, and letters of recommendation. Some have additional requirements for test-optional applicants, like graded high school papers, additional essays, or specific requirements for teacher letters of recommendation. It is important to closely read the application requirements for test-optional applicants on each college’s admissions website and to reach out with any questions. Although test-optional is new territory for many schools, quite a few have been test-optional for years—some for decades—and they’re now offering guidance for colleges new to navigating the process.
1. If a student is unsure if they should submit their scores to a particular college, I encourage them to research the scores for the middle 50 percent of admitted students in order to make a data-driven decision. You can find score averages for most universities on the College Board’s Big Future college profiles and on individual college websites. Although this decision will vary for each student and school, it is often wise to follow this guidance:
- Submit scores in the top half or above the middle 50 percent range
- Discuss with an admissions officer and consider not submitting scores in the lower half of the middle 50 percent range
- Do not submit if scores are below the middle 50 percent range.
2. FairTest maintains an up-to-date list of test-optional colleges.
3. Closely read the testing policies and application requirements for each college on their admission website and reach out to admissions officers with questions.