The Illusion of Test Optional Colleges

With the COVID-19 epidemic and the onset of nearly universal distance learning for all high school students, both parents and students have been relieved to hear that many college admission procedures are going “test optional” this year. While “test optional” does mean that standardized tests like the ACT and the SAT are not required, these tests remain optional which means the student can elect to submit them as part of their application.

Despite going “test optional” nearly all test optional colleges will carefully consider standardized test scores when they are made available by applicants. Test optional does not mean test blind. In general, most students with profiles strong enough to think they have some chance of admission to more competitive test optional colleges should try to prep for and attain strong test scores to enhance their applications. Also, since many test optional colleges may nevertheless require standardized test scores for some applicants, it is best to check with each college you plan to send an application, in order to know what is expected. Examples of reasons why some applicants may be required to submit scores to some colleges include those seeking to be admitted to certain majors (e.g., engineering, computer science), recruitable athletes, students applying to the school’s honors college, and those seeking need-based or merit awards, among others.

In past years, admissions staff in test optional colleges were able to do their jobs and evaluate applicants who do not send scores by focusing on the high school transcript to give insight into the applicant’s academic preparedness. However, with the onset of the coronavirus came distance learning, and with distance learning came some pretty rampant grade inflation. Many teachers could not teach all relevant material remotely and often teachers had no truly effective way to test their students’ knowledge. Lacking valid assessments, some teachers dropped final exams, some may have discouraged AP testing and sometimes, maybe even often, gave students better grades than they might have otherwise, so as not to punish students for conditions that were beyond their control.

Many students and parents have breathed a sigh of relief that many colleges are going test optional for applications submitted this fall. While this stance is understandable given that so many students were unable to take standardized tests in the spring and summer due to site closings and other obstacles, this decision has put admissions staff in a difficult spot. Due to the reasons mentioned above, admissions staff may find it much more difficult to interpret and rely upon high school grades as one of the few, often the only, objective measure of student achievement. Rigor of coursework (honors, AP classes), extracurricular involvement, honors and awards, letters of recommendation and the quality of college essays will be weighted more heavily than before. If one or more of these areas are nonexistent or mediocre, it will be harder for a student to gain admission. This means that admissions staff will be thankful when an applicant sends standardized test scores because it will help them evaluate the student’s application and make a stronger case for admission. If you are a rising high school senior, pay attention to these well intended words of advice and invest some of your available resources in good test preparation this summer.

Now more than ever, a college education is an essential first step toward a fulfilling career. I am an expert at college matching and have made it my business to stay up to date and informed on the dramatic and ever-changing impact COVID-19 is having on higher education. Staying current and compassionate are critical to providing my students and their families with the information they need for wise decision-making. I encourage you to contact me now for a courtesy consultation.