As the wave of covid transmission spread, so too did the wave of colleges that went test-optional. It was clear from the start (and common sense) that students who submitted good test scores had — and continue to have — an advantage in admissions. Yet confusion reigned over what score was “good enough” to submit (now generally agreed to be any score higher than the school’s 25th percentile of scores for admitted students — but it still depends on the student, the high school, the college, full-pay or not, recruited athlete or not, etc.)
Three years since 2020, we are beginning to see colleges coalesce into groups of admissions practices, with test-optional admissions really having three subgroups to it.
- Test-required with rare exceptions
- Truly test-optional
Let’s look at each type.
A few schools (primarily just the public colleges in Florida) remained test-required throughout the pandemic. A few schools have returned to test-required (MIT, Georgetown, Purdue, etc). And still more schools will eventually return to test-required admissions (for instance, there is legislation in Texas that would require public colleges to require SAT/ACT scores for admission).
As I have written about before, I believe that one of the most important considerations when choosing a college degree is the future value of a degree, which is a unique buy-and-hold-for-life investment. I project that, as compared to equally ranked institutions, test-required colleges are better future investments (for instance, both Georgetown and Carnegie Mellon are similarly ranked, so unless Carnegie Mellon fits a student’s major better, then I would bet that Georgetown would be the better investment given that its adherence to academic standards is a good indicator that it will preserve and maybe even improve its college ranking over time).
But test-required admissions need no further explanation: it is a straight-forward policy and is the way things have always been (good test scores can help a student, but students are still evaluated holistically, which means that students are evaluated within their specific circumstances and disadvantaged students with less opportunity are, justifiably in my opinion, held to a different standard).
Test-optional admissions is more accurately split into three different categories.
Test-required with rare exceptions
An example of such a school is, not surprisingly, Yale (and most of the other very highly selective institutions).
Here was the percentage of students who enrolled at Duke in 2021 who submitted test scores:
So roughly 93% of enrolled students submitted scores (some small percentage of enrolled students probably submitted both an SAT and an ACT score, so they would be double-counted).
Duke is, in practice, test-required but likely with some rare exceptions who meet extremely highly valued institutional priorities. And the submitter percentage might actually be higher in reality because a common practice is to look at a recruited athlete’s scores, give them the thumbs-up with those scores, and then tell them to apply test-optional because the scores are high enough to get admitted but the highly selective school doesn’t want the score bringing down the school’s average. That student should be counted as a student who submitted test scores, but they’re not.
Duke doesn’t mince words on its admissions webpage either: “Buy a study guide and begin taking practice SAT and ACT tests.”
In short, the closer to 100% of enrolled students submitted test scores, the more the school is functionally test-required.
This is new.
In 2020, schools went to great lengths to (falsely) emphasize that applying without test scores would not disadvantage a student (in reality, “not disadvantage” meant that colleges would not penalize a student for not submitting, but a student without test scores was still at a relative disadvantage when compared to a student with the same credentials who did submit good test scores).
In 2023, there is a new trend emerging: colleges honestly encouraging students to submit test scores even if the scores are not required to apply — and no mention that there will be no disadvantage in admissions if students do not submit test scores.
“Students are enouraged to submit SAT/ACT scores, but it is not required.”UT Austin Standardized Testing Policy FAQs
“We recommend applicants take the ACT or SAT and submit test scores if they are available, as we believe that standardized test scores provide useful information and predictive value about a student’s potential for success at Ohio State.”Ohio State General FAQs
As anyone in admissions will tell you, “recommended” basically means “required.” Will the colleges make exceptions and admit some students without test scores? Yes. But, by definition, most people are not the exceptions.
Even if a college does not explicitly indicate that it is test-preferred, parents and students can judge fairly well if the college is by looking up a college’s Common Data Set (just google the school’s name with “common data set” after the school name — usually around page 8 is the percentage of enrolled students who submitted test scores).
In 2021, 82% and 85% of enrolled first-year students submitted SAT/ACT scores to UT Austin and Ohio State, respectively.
Any school should be considered test-preferred if 50% or more of its students submitted test scores (and the higher the percentage, the more preferred).
These are the schools at which less than 50% of enrolled students submitted test scores for admissions — and, the lower that percentage, the more truly test-optional the school is. Here’s an example:
Pepperdine is truly test-optional. As long as you have good grades, you probably don’t need an SAT/ACT score to get admitted there. Granted, if you do have a high SAT/ACT score (above the 75th percentile of a college’s enrolled students), then an SAT/ACT score is quite likely to help you get more merit aid or a scholarship because a college will compete harder with its peer institutions to try to entice you to enroll there.
These schools are about as rare as test-required schools. The most notable test-blind colleges are UC Berkeley and UCLA (all of the universities in the UC system are now test-blind).
I say test-blind(ish) because the most selective “test-blind” colleges are not even actually test-blind — they are just SAT/ACT test-blind.
What’s the difference? There’s an important one.
As you can see above, though UC Berkeley will not consider SAT/ACT test scores, they will absolutely consider other standardized test scores. Why? They want some common yardstick by which to compare applicants — there are over 20,000 high schools in the U.S. which have different grading standards and even different grading scales and at which students take different classes from different teachers. Grades are simply not able to be accurately compared between students from different schools (even at the same school a student might have been unlucky to get the harder teachers and thus be a better student but have lower grades). That’s why some standardized metric helps with the comparison and adds to predicting which students are best equipped to succeed at an institution.
What’s next is what has always been: prepare up to your personal standards. There is uncertainty in college admissions, but it is especially in the face of uncertainty that we want to make sure that we are adequately prepared.
In fact, the entire purpose of education is to prepare for the future, though people have different comfort levels when it comes to preparation. Some hope for the best. Some plan for the worst.
For me, I try to err toward the side of over-preparation. When I clearly over-prepare (overpack?), sometimes I do have minor regret. But, when I under-prepare, life can become very difficult, and I always wish that I would have erred toward over-preparation.
SAT tutoring and ACT tutoring have few downsides — at a minimum, students will be learning fundamental skills and knowledge (grammar, written communication, mathematics, reading, and data analysis) that will help them in high school, in college, and in life. And, in the best case scenario, that skill and knowledge will not only translate into a higher SAT/ACT score but also into more acceptance letters to better schools and more merit aid and scholarships.