What Are Test Optional Colleges?

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what are test optional colleges

What are “test optional” colleges exactly? They are schools that have moved away from incorporating standardized test results in the admissions process.

Covid-19 was a significant catalyst for this shift. Many schools decided to waive test requirements due to the disruption the pandemic caused for high school students.

What started as a temporary solution might now be a permanent change to how college admissions are handled moving forward. According to the nonprofit newsroom, The 19th, two-thirds of colleges have stopped “requiring” standardized tests for admission, including top schools like Harvard and Stanford.

In this article, we’ll dive into what it means to be test optional and what you should know about applying to schools that don’t require admissions exams.

What Does “Test Optional” Mean?

Test optional is a college admissions policy that gives students the choice of whether or not they want to submit their results from a standardized test like the SAT or ACT. Because test scores are considered optional, they’re not counted against students by college admissions officers.

Test optional became a temporary solution to disruptions to the standardized testing schedule caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Several schools, including high-profile colleges like Harvard, have decided to continue with a test optional admissions standard.

Although some schools give you the choice to avoid taking standardized tests, that doesn’t mean tests aren’t important. Instead, they’ve become more of a supplemental component to a student’s application rather than a deciding factor.

In the past, a poor test score could negatively affect your chances of admission. With test optional policies, that is no longer the case. While a good test score may bolster your overall admissions package, a negative score won’t necessarily hurt you.

That being said, test optional isn’t a standardized policy across universities. Each school may have its own approach to how test scores are handled. This includes admissions into specific colleges or programs within a university. While you might not need to submit an SAT or ACT score to get into a particular university, academic departments within that university may still require it.

For now, test optional primarily applies to admissions. It does not apply to financial aid or scholarship considerations. Getting high scores on the SAT or ACT can actually improve your chances of getting scholarships to pay for school. Even if the school you apply to doesn’t require you to submit a standardized test score, it could still be helpful to take the test to increase your opportunities for financial assistance.

Related: College Entrance Exams 101: What To Know

Why Are Schools Becoming Test Optional?

One of the big drivers for schools becoming test optional was the Covid-19 pandemic. Thanks to lockdowns, many high school students moved to online learning. It wasn’t possible to hold in person tests, which meant college juniors and seniors missed the opportunity to take the tests in the first place.

Other factors have prompted schools to adopt a test optional policy permanently. Socioeconomics plays a big role in test outcomes. Students from wealthier families tend to score better, thus getting access to better schools. Eliminating testing requirements levels the playing field, giving underrepresented students a better chance of getting into competitive schools.

Another reason is to encourage more students to apply. With college applications declining, some schools are getting creative to attract students. If a student thinks they won’t get in because of a poor test score, they’re less inclined to apply. Removing the testing requirement gives some students the boost they need to follow through with applications to schools they might think they’re not able to get into. The result is that colleges can “improve their numbers and selectivity” by having more students apply.

Finally, becoming test optional, some schools beleive they can increase the diversity of their freshman classes, improving the quality of education for all students on campus. While it’s still too soon to say how beneficial this policy will be in the long term, it’s already showing positive results, especially for students who have historically been excluded from the college admissions process.

Related: What Is A Good SAT Score: Strategies For Success

Types Of Test Optional Policies

There is no standardized policy for how test optional admissions are applied. Schools have had to come up with their own process for how they handle standardized test scores. These are some of the most common test-optional policies that have emerged as a result.

Test Optional For All Applicants

All students have the opportunity to decide whether or not to submit SAT or ACT scores as part of their application package. This allows students who feel like their scores might hurt their admissions chances to opt out of submitting them altogether. Conversely, students who feel as if their scores may help them can submit their scores if they want to.

Test Optional For Some Applicants

Instead of allowing all students to pick and choose whether or not to submit their scores, this policy requires students who don’t meet certain eligibility requirements – like having a high enough GPA – to submit test scores as part of their overall package.

Eligibility requirements can also apply for non-academic reasons. Students who apply from out-of-state or who were homeschooled may be asked to submit test scores as well.

Test Flexible

Rather than making tests optional, some schools offer flexibility in which test scores are submitted. Instead of providing an SAT or ACT score, for example, test flexible schools allow students to submit other tests – like AP Exams – as part of their admissions package.

Test Optional With Some Exceptions

While a school may offer test optional admissions, that isn’t necessarily the policy across all colleges or academic departments on campus. Test scores may be required to be enrolled in competitive programs, gain access to academic counseling, or to be awarded merit scholarships.

Test Blind Admissions

Some schools, like the University of California system, have moved to “test blind” admissions – where they do not consider the SAT or ACT at all for California high school students. However, the key here is they eliminated it for just California high school students. If you’re an out-of-state student, or foreign exchange student, you should still plan on taking the SAT or ACT. Furthermore, the test blind policy only applies to admissions – but not course placement, scholarships, or the California statewide admission guarantee (which doesn’t currently use standardized test scores, but reserves the right to). As a result, it still could be beneficial to take a standardized test.

What Are The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Test Optional Schools?

There are some benefits to making standardized tests optional. These benefits are leading a growing number of schools to do away with standardized test requirements altogether.

The biggest advantage is that it reduces the barrier to entry for students who have been historically underrepresented in college admissions. This includes women, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, students with disabilities, and students of color.

By increasing access to college, test optional schools also foster greater diversity for incoming classes. This enriches the quality of the college experience, not just for students who benefit from test optional admissions but for everyone on campus.

But while there are advantages to the system it isn’t perfect. The lack of a standardized policy across campuses can be confusing for students. You might think test scores are optional but they could still be required for enrollment in specific academic programs. If you skipped the SAT or ACT in high school, you could put yourself in a difficult position if you discover that you actually do need to have a test score.

The elimination of testing requirements is also placing a strain on admissions offices. An influx of applicants means more time and energy has to be allocated toward evaluating each student more holistically. While this may sound great in theory, some schools may find it hard to implement. This can adversely affect students who might have otherwise received admissions under a more standardized process.

And you have to ask yourself if these policies are really serving the holistic admissions nature being promoted, or if they’re really just an attempt to skew the admissions numbers to make colleges look better on paper than they really are. By being test-optional, schools are seeing record numbers of applicants, while still only admitting “normal” numbers. The result is that these colleges suddenly look more selective and popular on paper, while there’s been no material change on the academics or programs offered.

This could also encourage schools to raise prices as a result – putting the same students who were at a disadvantage in the admissions process now feeling a financial pinch to go to college.

Should You Still Take College Admissions Tests?

The good news is taking a standardized test like the SAT or ACT won’t hurt your admissions chances if you apply to a test optional school. Instead, it could give you more options. You can submit your scores if they add value to your application, or you can choose not to. The decision is ultimately yours to make.

That being said, while avoiding the SAT might seem appealing, it could end up hurting you. Strong test takers who might be on the cusp of admissions could find that submitting their scores ends up being the difference between getting an admissions offer or not. Test scores can also be used to earn scholarships, helping you finance your college education.

Before skipping the tests evaluate the policies of each school you plan to apply to and determine what their testing requirements actually are. If you’re certain you won’t benefit from taking a standardized test then that is a decision you can make for yourself. But if you think it might help you boost your chances of admission or help you win a scholarship, what do you have to lose?

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