Test optional...what does it really mean?

Test optional

We keep hearing the phrase “test-optional”, but what does this actually mean? At first glance, it may seem like a relief to omit the looming SAT and ACT from the college application checklist. Yet, the reality of this trend makes college admissions more complicated than ever.

Today, we’re exploring those options to help you make the best choice for rising juniors and seniors.

The COVID-19 pandemic left the college admissions world looking quite different from years past. Schools and testing centers shut down. SATs and ACTs were canceled. Inequitable access to standardized testing and schooling options led to increasing pressure for colleges and universities to go test optional, and many of them did. Over 1400 colleges and universities went test-optional this past admissions season, and 84% plan to do it again into 2022 and beyond.

For some, foregoing the test is a great way to highlight academic and athletic achievements, a well-balanced resume, and a rad essay. For others, taking and submitting the test may still be the best option. So let’s jump in and look at the important considerations for each option and see which is the best route for you or your student. 

Who should still take the SAT or ACT?

1. Those wanting to stand out.
Across the nation, four-year institutions are reporting a 17% increase in applicants on average. Harvard saw a 43% rise, and Colgate saw a 102% increase! This sheer volume of applications means a more competitive environment in which to shine. Furthermore, college counseling offices found that students who were normally expected to gain ED admissions last year were instead more likely to be deferred when they did not report scores.
2. Those applying to reluctant/reactionary test-optional institutions.

 It’s important to recognize that the majority of colleges and universities have gone test optional as a reaction to the current situation. Furthermore, there has been much debate about the effects of COVID-19 on grade inflation, further muddling the admissions process. 

Together with increased applications, schools are scrambling to differentiate between candidates. Many have not yet figured out supplemental systems to effectively evaluate applications, nor do they have the proper resources to do so, leading them to fall back on their historic benchmark: the standardized test. 

Some colleges, like Cornell, have even expressed that they still prefer to see test results from applicants, and have not adopted a school-wide test optional policy. 

Bottom line: research your target schools to see where they stand in all of this!

3. To meet requirements.

Many colleges and universities may be test-optional, but not every department or program may be. Before you make a decision, it’s best to check:

    • Does your high school require you to do standardized testing in order to graduate?
    • Do scholarship programs you want to apply for require scores? (Sixty percent still do!)
    • Are you applying to a special program or think you may transfer to an institution that still requires SAT/ACT scores?
4. When you need a boost.

As in the past, higher standardized testing can provide a balance to a lower GPA, as well as balance an application that’s heavier on experiential or “soft skills”. College admissions is still ultimately driven by the need for institutions to find the most qualified and best-fitting applicants, so standardized testing may provide an opportunity for you to show them that you are!

5. If everyone is doing it.

You may want to go with the crowd. If a college admissions officer looks at a group of applications from your high school and sees that a high percentage of them reported ACT/SAT scores and you did not, they’re naturally going to wonder why. It may be a good idea to check with your school’s college counseling office to see how many of your peers are reporting scores to schools to which you’re applying and adjust your plan accordingly. 

Who may not need to take the SAT or ACT?

1. Athletes.

The NCAA has announced test-optional guidelines for the second year in a row, in keeping up with colleges. This means that athletes are no longer required to report scores on the SAT/ACT in order to play college sports. However, you still must take sixteen core courses and keep up your GPA: 2.3 for Division 1 and 2.2 for Division 2 in core courses.

2. AP - or IB - Allstars

If you have taken three or more APs or IBs, done well in those classes, and rocked your AP tests, these records can give you an edge and demonstrate to colleges that your academic prowess is real in high-rigor collegiate-level classes.

3. If your specific program is “score-free” or “test blind”.

Test-optional is not the same as “test blind” or “score-free.” While test-optional schools will still consider your scores among the growing list of 1500+ schools that have new testing guidelines, some of them who have adopted “test blind” or “score free” policies will actually not even look at your scores, even if you opt to report them.

 Bottom line: research your target schools’ guidelines carefully, because some schools, such as Cornell, that are listed as “test optional” actually have score-free colleges within their institutions.

4. If your target institution was test optional prior to the pandemic.

A handful of colleges and universities made the move to test optional and/or score-free admissions prior to the pandemic. They did so methodically and deliberately, and their admissions offices developed systems to identify ideal candidates without the use of test scores. This means that they may be more prepared than offices that had to pivot quickly and are still trying to figure out what those markers are.

Other important considerations for :

  • This past year, despite many colleges and universities adopting test optional policies, college counseling offices across the US have consistently advised students to take the test, whether or not they report their scores.
  • College admissions offices are made up of humans with habits, attention spans, and biases. It’s always important to keep in mind that you are compiling something for a human, not an institution, to read. This means that a strong SAT or ACT score will play a role in determining your application status.
  • One thing isn’t going away: in the face of this shifting admissions environment, standing out in your personal narrative essay is more important than ever!

We hope that the above breakdown of considerations will help you to make the best decision this summer and fall. Whichever route you decide to take, we have you covered at Pittsburgh Prep.

Whether you decide to engage in test prepget ready for the fall with one-on-one academic tutoring, or strengthen your college application, we can help you achieve your goals with expert guidance and powerful outcomes.

Schedule a meeting with us to discuss your goals via hello@pittsburghprep.com. We’d love to help in every way.

Psst- Do you know that Pittsburgh Prep never turns away a student for financial reasons? And, did you know that Pittsburgh Prep provides over $30,000 in grants and scholarships to families in need each year? If you or someone you know may benefit from any of our programming, please let us know. We are dedicated to helping students in our community attain their academic goals without undue burden on their finances.

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