Most colleges and universities have moved towards Test-Optional policies, both as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic and as a movement towards more flexible admissions. Over 90% of the top 250 ranked colleges had test-optional policies in the 2021-2022 application cycle. We know this helps people who don’t test well. But who does this policy hurt?
Who it Helps: Top/Elite Colleges
Test-Optional policies help schools inflate the numbers of the test scores that come in. When colleges implement a test-optional policy, students with bad test scores stop submitting them. As a result, median test scores keep going up at these schools, making them seem elite and selective. Additionally, test-optional policies help top schools accept whoever they want and show favoritism. For example, if there are children of donors and alumni with bad test scores, they have an easier time getting accepted by not submitting test scores.
Who it Hurts: Anyone Applying to Highly Rejective Colleges
Save for those students who perform very poorly on standardized tests, test-optional policies hurt students applying to elite schools. Suddenly, top colleges with 7% admit rates are reporting 4% admit rates. The pool of applicants increased. Anytime the pool increases, it makes it more difficult for everyone applying. You may think applying test-optional will save you future stress. However, due to the increased competition, the college admissions process will now cause more stress and anxiety. If more people apply everywhere, that means more rejections and more uncertainty. This also makes it harder to plan what colleges you want to go to due to increased rejections. You may have to apply to more schools.
Who it Hurts: Students where Everyone Else in their Context are Taking the Tests
It’s true that a lot of schools say it won’t hurt you if you don’t have a test score. However, if you’re a student at a private school who has had multiple opportunities to take the test in the last year, it may hurt you. Brooke has noticed that her students who attend private schools and have more economic opportunity have fared better these past 2 admissions cycles if they submit an excellent test score. For people who have the means, submitting a great test score may help.
Author Jeff Selingo presents evidence to support this claim in his April, 2021 newsletter. According to Selingo, the admit rate of students with test scores was sometimes twice as high as those without. For example, the admit rate at Emory was 17% for those with tests, and 8.6% for those without. At Colgate University, it was 25% with tests, and 12% for those without. At Georgia Tech it was 22% for those with tests, and 10% for those without. Finally, at Vanderbilt the admit rate was 7.2% for those with tests, versus 6% for those without.
Admission to top 25 schools is harder than ever because more people apply. In particular, we think a lot more middle class students apply who previously didn’t think they had a chance due to a lack of test prep. In any case, we think test-optional policies are hurting students who would’ve prepped for the test, but they don’t even try due to the new policy. Instead of taking the test, the policy gives them a false sense of security.
Who it Hurts: Students without a WOW Factor
If you don’t have a WOW factor it is now harder to stand out from those with WOW factors. Students with a WOW factor, even if they don’t have a test score, now trump you in the college admissions game. Because tests now aren’t always a piece of the puzzle, we’re finding that a WOW factor matters even more. Unfortunately, this only adds more pressure to the whole process.
Who it Hurts: Students without a Sob Story
Anyone with an awesome, tear-jerker story may have a huge benefit in college admissions. Beautiful stories will have more power now that test scores are not a part of the holistic admissions experience. If you don’t have that kind of a story, someone with this kind of beautiful story may beat you out, even if they don’t have a test score.
Who it Hurts: Students Prepping for Exams
Test-optional policies have created an environment where kids with bad scores don’t submit them. As a result, colleges are reporting higher than ever median test scores. Our previous articles on a good SAT score or ACT score in 2021 show this upward trend, especially in schools ranked 10 to 25. This means if you’re planning to take the test, you now need a higher test score to stand out and still be in the running for a top 25 school (as opposed to just the top 10 schools). So now if you’re prepping for the test, you may need to study longer to reach a higher score.
While there is some benefit to test-optional policies for students who score badly on tests, these new policies cause other factors to come into play. As COVID-19 wanes, college and university may expect you to start submitting test scores again, or prove yourself in some other way. In the same way applications are activities-optional, submitting an application with no activities will hurt you.