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What does "test optional" mean?

Many of you are aware of the changing application requirements surrounding standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT this year. These tests have become a very important part of the application process; a 2006 NACAC study found that from 1993 to 2006, the number of college admissions officers who placed “considerable importance” on standardized test scores rose from 46% to 60%, which means that for a majority of college admissions decision-makers, these were deciding factors in freshman applications.

In the last few years, however, there has been a backlash against standardized testing and that, along with the realities of COVID-19, has prompted many universities to adopt a test-optional policy for freshman applications. But what does that mean for the future? And how optional is “test-optional?” In this case, “test optional” refers to making reporting of SAT I (non-subject) tests optional on your freshman application. The SAT II subject tests had already been optional for most schools continue to be so. So why is this different?

Look over the admissions page of many prestigious universities and you’ll come across a sentence along these lines: “Applicants who do not submit SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Test scores will not be at a disadvantage in the admissions process.” That one’s from UPenn’s site. Remember, however, that these admissions guidelines are fully at the discretion of the universities. They are not bound by law to ensure equality between applicants based on their test scores. In the frequent occurrence that two applicants have similar GPAs, range of extracurriculars, and similarly strong essays, it would be hard to believe that a college admissions officer would throw out another useful data point in making an admissions decision.

Universities are aware of this issue and have moved to address it. Dartmouth writes on their website that

“optional” is not a trick word. It is not a wink that signals a continued institutional preference for the upcoming admissions cycle.

There are schools taking the alternate approach as well, like MIT. They put out a statement making test scores optional, but were careful to note that:

standardized testing “helps us more accurately evaluate their [student’s] preparedness for MIT.”

This is an implicit admission that even in an optional format, SAT and ACT scores will play some role in admissions. And ultimately, why would they be willing to accept this material as part of the application, if not to use it in making admissions decisions?

In fairness to the higher education community, some universities are moving towards policies of non-consideration for standardized testing. Caltech has announced a 2-year moratorium on standardized test scores in their application - for both the incoming classes of 2025 and 2026, they will not be accepting any private standardized test scores in the applications of aspiring freshmen. In this case, you can be sure that your lack of an SAT or ACT test score will not affect your application. But few other universities, including well-meaning Dartmouth, can give the same assurance. If you want the best chance to get into college next year, we still recommend that our students prepare for and take standardized tests to include on their application.

That’s one of the reasons why we’re offering one more chance for both ACT and SAT prep before the school semester begins. Despite the uneven access to testing and the protestations of universities, standardized testings will be a factor in application decisions in 2021 - do your best to prepare and check out the link below to our final SAT and ACT preparation classes.


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