A Look at Test Optional and College Admissions

Test optional and college admissions is still in a state of turmoil which I predict will not settle for the next 2-3 admissions cycles. In my opinion, test optional choices have made a byzantine system even more difficult for teens and their families to navigate as they apply to college. While I do believe that some colleges have embraced test optional with the goal to help simplify the admissions process, what I have seen is that test optional only adds to the difficulty in navigating college admissions.

What is Test Optional?

On the surface, test optional sounds awesome. For colleges that offer test optional, it means that you can decide if you would like to submit your scores. Admissions officers tell us that there is no penalty for not submitting – they simply weigh other aspects of your application more heavily when scores are not present. As a general trend, we are seeing students who submit scores are admitted at a higher rate than students who do not, but that varies by college. The problem for students becomes to submit or not submit. It is a difficult choice and should be considered school by school as you complete your applications.

Test Optional Vs. Test Blind

There are some colleges (the University of California system is one large example) that will NOT consider test scores even if they are submitted. These are test blind schools. Test optional schools WILL consider test scores if they are provided.

The Trend in Test Scores

Even though it is stating the obvious, the pandemic adversely impacted student test scores. The ACT reported that the high school class of 2022 had the lowest scores in 30 years. Yet, at more selective colleges, we have seen admitted student scores rise to unprecedented levels. For instance, at Stanford, for the class of 2025, the middle 50% of SAT scores were 1470 – 1570 (a perfect score on the SAT is 1600). For the same class, Harvard’s middle 50% of SAT scores were 1480 – 1580. I believe this trend in increasing scores of admitted students is because only the best scores are submitted which is putting even more pressure on an already fraught system.

Test Optional Isn’t Universal

In Florida, the 12 public universities are mandated to require standardized test scores. Florida State University’s website says, “Requiring an ACT or SAT test score for admissions consideration is not an institutional choice. FSU, along with Florida’s 11 other public universities, is subject to Florida Board of Governors admissions regulation 6.002 which requires first-year students seeking admission to submit an ACT or SAT test score.” Want to read that regulation? You can do that here.

At the same time, the University of California system has dropped the use of test scores in admissions decisions. The UC website says, “UC will not consider SAT or ACT test scores when making admissions decisions or awarding scholarships. If you choose to submit test scores as part of your application, they may be used as an alternative method of fulfilling minimum requirements for eligibility or for course placement after you enroll.”

There is no standardization across the U.S. for the use of test scores in college admissions, and even some schools that are test optional still require scores to determine merit aid scholarships. In Florida, for instance, students seeking the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship (paying 75% – 100% of tuition at any Florida public university) are required to score a threshold level on the ACT or SAT. Next year, the SAT threshold level for the Florida Academic Scholars scholarship offering 100% tuition is rising by 10 points to 1340.

What Happens at the Most Selective Universities Tends to Trickle Down

I am watching the most selective universities (or what many in the industry are calling highly rejective colleges – those with admissions rates below 15-20% depending on who is doing the defining) carefully to see how they handle test optional in the upcoming cycles. With MIT rolling back test optional for the 2022-23 admissions cycle, I think some of the other highly rejective universities will follow suit. The dean of admissions at MIT, Stu Schmill, said of the decision, “Our research shows standardized tests help us better assess the academic preparedness of all applicants.”

While what Schmill claims may be the case, I also believe it is because rejective colleges are getting slammed with more applications than they have ever seen on top of hiring freezes, droves of people leaving admissions work, and understaffed offices. These colleges need some bright lines to quickly sort out the lowest tier of their applicants.

I will be watching the big state schools, as I believe many of them will bring back test requirements for the same reason – too few admissions officers and too many applications.

However, I believe many of the small liberal arts colleges will remain test optional. They pride themselves on holistic admissions and many of these schools were already test optional long before the pandemic forced the issue.

What Students Should Do for Upcoming Admissions Cycles

I advise all my students to test. I recently had an engaging visit with Edward Lee and Eli Epstein from Lee Tutoring about the trends in testing from a test prep professional’s point of view. They offer this advice to their students, “Without test scores, you’re limited to test optional schools, and even at those schools you’re missing a potentially favorable data point in your application. You’re also going to lose access to many merit-based scholarships that still use test scores to select recipients.” You can find this as well as other thoughts on the test optional policies in their blog.

Simply put, having strong test scores will give you more options when it is time to build your college list.

I am a big believer in the value of test prep. While some students can be successful with a self-study program, I find most students perform better with structured test prep using a professional test prep company. The value of professional test prep is that it focuses your studying on areas where you need the most help, makes better use of your time, reduces the number of times you need to sit for the exam, and lets you move on quickly from testing to applying for college.

I prefer that my students complete all testing by the end of the junior year so that they can put their full effort into their college apps during the summer and fall of their senior year without the distraction of test prep.

To Submit or Not Submit

This is where I find the test optional experiment a failure – as students must determine if they should submit or withhold scores at each college on their lists. It has created another pressure point for students to try to work through in admissions. For my students, I evaluate the trends at each college on their lists, and we discuss the advantages/disadvantages of using their scores with their application. My advice has the benefit of hours of time with admissions officers and at professional conferences where test score strategy has become a hot topic. We make a call to send scores or withhold scores on a college-by-college basis. These are difficult decisions for students to make in a system already fraught with difficult decisions.

What to Watch

The rollout of ChatGPT has the potential to change the face of college admissions. Admissions offices are already discussing the validity of a student essay when students can enter in a few parameters and out pops a college essay.

I wouldn’t be surprised if ChatGPT and similar software doesn’t drive colleges back to requiring test scores as they won’t be able to trust the essays as authentic. We might even see the return of the writing sections of the SAT and ACT.

ChatGPT is still far from perfect. I have read enough authentic student writing in my time as a college instructor for English, ethics, and public speaking and as a college admissions consultant that I can spot an essay written by ChatGPT with little problem because of the banality of the writing (my suspicion is that the admissions officers have also read enough student writing to easily spot an AI generated piece of writing), but I also know that this software will only get more sophisticated. I expect it to reach a point where it becomes difficult to discern the difference between a human’s writing and a machine’s writing.

This is a tumultuous time in the world of college admissions. If you are looking for an expert to help guide you through the process and reduce your stress while utilizing your time and resources wisely, contact me at [email protected]. We can set up a free consultation to see how I can help.