Test-Optional Colleges and You

As we’ve already discussed (twice even), the college admissions process has been heavily impacted by the Coronavirus pandemic. SATs were often cancelled, as were  ACTs, and many students around the country were unable to take any standardized tests at all.

Those who did manage to take these tests often did so much later than planned, or in otherwise difficult circumstances. College Board requires  testing centers to abide by local Covid regulations, so not every student was affected in the same way. 

In this article, we’ll examine how schools have responded, and how you should approach standardized testing, and submitting your test scores on your colleges applications this year.

How Schools Responded

The student response, understandably, has been frustration and confusion. Universities, already reeling from the impacts of the pandemic, are now trying to find a way to support students while also remaining solvent.. One  trend is that schools are going test-optional for 2020-21 with a majority of schools adopting this approach.

While there are still some important exceptions, a majority of the country’s top schools have adopted a test-optional approach. The problem, however, that schools face now, is that tests were an important part of the admissions process: standardized test scores are strongly correlated with academic performance in college (although they are a worse indicator of future performance than grades). 

Texas A&M, for instance, previously used standardized test scores to help determine eligibility for automatic admission. Now, students must be in the top 10% of their graduating class to qualify whereas previously students outside the top 10% could qualify for automatic admission if their test scores were high enough. 

While this may feel unfair to students who took the tests and did well, colleges are trying to ensure that students who were heavily impacted by test cancellations are not penalized for factors beyond their control. That said, students who take the tests will still benefit from earning a high score.

How to Approach Testing for Test-Optional Colleges

It may, depending on your location, be entirely impossible for you to take any standardized tests this year. While this may not be ideal, it will not hurt your chances of admission. Test optional and test flexible policies mean that not submitting scores won’t hurt your application, although students who do submit scores may have them help their chances of admission.

How each school is approaching this is slightly different, so you should check the specifics of the schools you are applying to before making any decisions. Generally, however, if you send in test scores they will help your application if they are good. Some schools will discount the scores if they are not as strong, others will count them against you.

If your scores are very good then, you should definitely send them in. What counts as good, of course, varies depending on the school. If your scores are above average for a school, definitely send them in. If your scores are above the 25th percentile, consider sending them in. If your scores fail to hit that benchmark, it may be best to not report your scores at all.

For the Common App, of course, you send all of your scores to all of your schools, so you must decide based on the collective. If you do not send scores via the Common App, you can selectively send score reports to middle-tier schools, bypassing highly selective schools.

Schools will still be looking for ways to judge academic performance outside of grades alone, meaning AP scores are useful here as well. While this spring’s test takers encountered problems, scores from previous years are still valid. Schools are taking different approaches to scores from AP tests from this Spring, and they may or may not count, depending on the policies of any given school.

Test Blind and Not Submitting Scores

Somes schools are going test blind, meaning that they will not consider standardized test scores in an application decision, even if they are included. Notables include Caltech and the entire University of California system. If you are applying to any test blind schools, you can still include your scores on the Common App, but the scores  will not help or hinder your application to the test blind schools. The UC application has entirely removed the section for reporting standardized test scores.

If you apply to schools without submitting scores, those schools will have to judge your application in other ways. We cover how applications are judged in more normal times in this article. Without test scores, however, a student’s academic performance is as important as ever, but schools are short one of their standard criteria to judge a student’s academic potential. Thus the remaining criteria become ever more important.

This can be very helpful for students who have a high GPA, but don’t do well on tests. GPA alone, however, is not always enough to show schools that you are academically ready for college. Taking easier classes in order to get a higher GPA may seem a clever strategy, but it is one admissions officers are very familiar with. They instead want to see students challenging themselves and succeeding. This includes classes in your senior year, so this is no time to slack off!

Final Thoughts on Test-Optional Colleges

You may or may not have been able to take any standardized tests this year, and may not have gotten the results you hoped for even if you did. This year, however, it matters much less than it normally does for college admissions. While good test scores can and will help your chances of admission, a lack of scores will not hurt you this year. This might be a good opportunity to focus your energies elsewhere, if you plan on applying only to test blind schools.

Only report your test scores if you are confident they will make your application stronger, and increase a college’s confidence in your academic abilities.

The college application process can feel daunting at the best of times, which this decidedly isn’t. If you have questions about any part of the application process or want additional, individualized guidance, don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at Ivy Scholars. We have a depth of knowledge about college admissions and are always happy to share it.

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