For the past two years, testing in college admissions has been very confusing. Many colleges and universities decided to adopt a test-optional policy during the pandemic. With the lack of access to testing sites for many students, this decision was welcomed. There were many schools that had been contemplating that decision prior to Covid, and this was the perfect opportunity to implement this newer way of looking at testing. There have always been institutions that were test-optional, now more schools were looking at this admission policy.
First, let’s start with a few definitions.
A test-optional college lets students decide whether they want to submit test scores with their application. Most test-optional schools will consider SAT and ACT scores if they are submitted, but focus on other factors they believe are stronger predictors of a student’s potential to succeed in college. These schools look at a student’s essays, recommendations, grades, and coursework just as (or more) closely than your test scores.
A test-flexible college lets students submit other test scores in place of the SAT or ACT, such as one or more SAT Subject Tests, an International Baccalaureate exam, or an Advanced Placement test.
A test-blind college will not consider test scores, even if you submit them.
These are very different schools of thought regarding test scores and it is very important for the student to understand the differences. If a student is not a strong test taker, applying to a school with a test-optional policy can be beneficial. However, there are other things to consider. As I always tell my students, testing is only one part of the application. If a student does not submit test scores, what will admission officers use to evaluate the student’s applications? Of course, that will make all of the other elements of a college application more important. GPA, extracurricular activities, and essays will play a more significant role in the evaluation process.
So, how does a student know when they should submit their test scores? My advice to students is to research each college and university they are interested in applying to and determine the mid 50% range of test scores of admitted students from the past application year. You can find this information either on the institution's website or on the College Data set for that particular institution. If the student falls within that range, and particularly is on the higher end of that range, then I typically advise a student to submit their test scores. For these students, their test scores will only enhance their applications. If a student is on the lower end of the mid 50% range it can get a little trickier in deciding whether to submit their test scores. Understanding the selectiveness of the school, major, etc can make the decision to submit test scores more challenging.
Applying Early Action as opposed to Regular Decision can also play a role in deciding to submit test scores.
For schools that have adopted a test-blind policy, submitting test scores is not an option. The schools will not use test scores at all in evaluating a student’s application.
What about test scores for merit aid? That is one of the most often asked questions I get from parents. Again, let’s give a definition.
Merit Aid: Merit aid refers to college awarded financial aid that is not based on financial need. The most commonly recognized form of merit aid is the scholarship. Scholarships may be awarded for academic skills or achievements based on talents such as athletic, artistic, or leadership.
Unfortunately, it is not as clear-cut as we would hope. There are a number of schools that have indicated that you will not need to submit test scores to be considered for merit aid. Examples of those schools are Boston University, Gonzaga University, Baylor University, Vanderbilt University, Miami of Ohio, and Notre Dame.
There are other schools that are very transparent about their GPA and testing requirements for merit aid for in-state and out-of-state students. The University of Alabama and the University of South Carolina are examples. I wish more schools would be as open about their merit aid policies. Here is an example of how the University of Alabama shows how out-of-state students qualify for merit aid. It is incumbent on the student to do their research and determine if test scores are required for merit aid consideration.
I can say, with utmost certainty, that most students do not enjoy taking standardized tests. However, it will remain my advice for at least the foreseeable future for students to continue to take the ACT and the SAT. Testing will continue to play a role in the admissions process at various colleges and universities. MIT recently announced that they would go back to requiring test scores for admission.
In my experience, typically there is one test that will meet the student's strengths the best. By taking each test, a student can determine which test meets their strengths the best. Determining the best test will also allow the student to develop a prep strategy for future tests. In my experience, students will typically take their preferred test 2-3 times in order to maximize their score. While students can pay for test preparation, there is a vast array of FREE test prep resources online. College Board offers free practice tests as well as Khan Academy.
Finally, as I continue to remind my students. Testing is only one part of a student’s application and can often be excluded from the application process. There are a wide variety of colleges and universities that do not require test scores. Most important is finding a college or university that is a good fit for a student. Understanding the testing policy can be a part of that good fit.