Amid the COVID-19 publicity and changes with college admissions, much attention has recently been given to multiple colleges and universities claiming to be ‘test optional’ for current juniors who will apply to colleges in the fall. Some students have been given the impression that they no longer need to worry about test prep and maximizing their potential on ACT and SAT standardized tests thinking that these are no longer necessary. This is an attempt to clarify some myths related to COVID-19 and standardized testing so that students may proceed in their planning efforts armed with information that could maximize their opportunities for success in the admissions process later this year.
How Important are Test Scores Anyway?
Standardized test scores are the second most important factor in college admissions behind a student’s academic record. The main reason that test scores have historically carried so much weight in admissions is that they are the only standardized metric that colleges can use to truly compare students in one area to other students across the country. Think about all the other measures; GPA, number of AP/IB classes, rigor taken vs. what’s available, extracurricular activities, and many other factors, it is impossible to compare apples to apples given the differing class options, grading scales, clubs and organizations and other variables in their community and beyond. So, standardized tests are the only true metric used to compare students who apply from different areas of the country or even different counties within a state.
While test scores can significantly impact acceptance rates, they can also impact merit aid at many colleges who have a sliding scale based on ACT/SAT test scores. Auburn University, for example, offers incoming students a $4,000 tuition discount with an ACT test score of 28, $8,000 per year with a score of 29-30, and $15,000 per year with a score of 31+. These tuition discounts are usually offered each year over a four-year period giving substantial savings to students who meet these requirements. Without test scores and a numeric sliding scale, colleges will have to try to discern other metrics and how to fairly compare students against one another, no doubt a challenging task!
ACT and SAT Test Plans
SAT has currently canceled all test dates through the summer, with the next test option being August 29 and will offer one test date a month through the end of the year. ACT still plans to administer their June exam with adjustments made to meet COVID requirements and has added other dates in June and July in addition to their already scheduled tests in September, October, and December. Both have committed to increased test center capacity and are considering their options for at-home testing. Given the recent issues with AP exam administration and the challenges faced by low-income students and those with limited access to technology, both are attempting to figure out a way to administer tests in person as they have in the past.
What Do Testing Policies Really Mean?
‘If a school is test optional, then test scores will not be a factor considered in admissions’ is actually a myth. First, this policy is likely to increase applications which will lead to a lower admit rate, which will lead to a better standing on ranking report such as US News & Word Report. Most popular schools such as George Washington, Wake Forest, University of Indiana, and University of Chicago all claim to be test optional. This policy could be translated to: ‘you better have an outstanding academic record, extracurricular activities, leadership and letters of recommendation.’
Many schools are going test optional for one year: Boston University, Davidson, the University of California system, Rhodes College as examples, all with a desire to eliminate the burden and stress with having missed key test dates and in an effort to level the playing field among all students.
Test flexible means you can submit if you want, or you can substitute AP exams, IB exams or Subject test scores in place of ACT or SAT test scores. Test flexible schools include Brandeis, Boston University and NYU. This policy also means there will be more competition given to other factors that will be considered for scarce resources and openings.
Test blind means they will not consider test scores at all; they will be blacked out if you submit. Example: Hampshire College and Northern Illinois are the only two schools in the country that currently offer this policy.
It is important to understand the depth of the policies at each institution as many schools claim test optional policies overall but may still require scores for specific programs such as engineering or nursing, dual degree programs such as BS/MD; home schooled applicants or athletes. In addition, many scholarship programs will continue to require test scores.
Who Benefits from Test Optional Policies?
Consider this: Applications increase, bringing down percent of accepted students given the larger applicant pool. Average ACT/SAT scores increase which increases selectivity…. which leads to higher rankings on US News and World Report and also allows for increased diversity. So, the real benefit is with the colleges as well as with under-represented minorities, first generation, low income students as well as students with lower scores. A higher ranking leads to even more applicants the following year and so on. The end result is more applications, higher test scores, increased selectivity, and increased diversity. All are large benefits to the institutions.
Who Should Submit Test Scores?
Many highly selective schools still suggest that you send scores. Many have carefully worded their policies on their websites delicately insinuating that they would still prefer test scores. This is especially true for those who are not socio-economically disadvantaged. Test scores may even give an advantage to those students who can prove their academic strength through their test scores. Given the myriad of students who are choosing to abandon test prep and submission of scores all together, this could give students a leg up in the fall if they can submit competitive scores amidst other students who chose not to persevere with their attempt to earn a strong score. Many schools also state that a large percentage of students continue to submit scores, especially to highly competitive schools, even with their test optional policies in place. Students who fall into any of these categories should continue to submit test scores
Students with a competitive score
Students applying for a merit-based scholarship
Students hoping for better financial aid packages
Students who hope to be accepted to an Honors Colleges
Students applying to highly selective limited access majors
Students applying to accelerated or dual degree programs
If you do not submit scores, they know that you do not have a competitive score. Therefore, they need to place more weight on other factors such as academic records, essays, extracurriculars, recommendations, and interviews. You are likely to need more AP or IB classes. FSU reported that avg. number of AP’s was 9 with no test scores. Schools may even require an extra letter of recommendation or portfolio.
If you truly cannot get a competitive score, then consider that this may be your best option. But be prepared to pay. If you live in a wealthy zip code or private school, expectations will be higher for you. Include back up schools if you are going test optional.
So, should you abandon, slow down or continue full speed ahead on test prep?
With the rise in test optional schools and the implication that their importance has lessened, many students are likely to choose to slack off on test efforts. Students who stay focused and continue with test prep will have the opportunity to pull out ahead of the rest of the pack. This presents a huge opportunity to position yourself for greater success in the next admissions cycle. This is a great time for test prep! July, August and September tests are paramount for juniors. Prepare now. Continue full speed ahead!