Many of us in the college admissions world are watching to see how colleges react to this new barrier for students. So far, 35 schools, including Loyola Marymount, University of Oregon, and the University of California system, have announced that they will be test-optional for students applying this fall. They join the 1,000+ colleges who had already adopted a test-optional or test-flexible policy on their campuses.
Throwing out yet another curveball, the College Board and ACT have mentioned that online versions of their tests will be available as soon as this fall. I’m not a huge fan of this idea, namely because they almost certainly have not had a chance to review the accuracy and validity of the online versions, let alone come up with necessary accommodations for students with learning differences or limited access to technology and Wi-Fi. I’ll be keeping an eye on how next month’s online, at-home AP tests go for a sense of what students can expect this fall.
But the big question my students are asking is what test-optional really means and whether they should change their application plans. “Optional” is a bit of a loaded word in college applications. Some schools recommend but do not require SAT subject tests. Some schools include optional supplemental essays in their applications. And whole sections of the Common App, like the Additional Information section, are optional. Many of my students don’t know what to make of these choices and whether they should submit something. (For the record, you should submit subject test scores if they are good, you should always write optional supplemental essays, and using the Additional Info section depends on your individual situation).
So how optional are standardized tests at these test-optional schools? Test-optional simply means that if you submit scores, they will be considered with your application. If you don’t, they will make a decision based on the rest of your application - your transcripts, extracurricular involvement, essays, and letters of rec. I’m still recommending that my students prepare to take either the SAT or the ACT if it becomes available in the summer or the fall. That way, students will have scores that they can submit if they are within or above the median 50% score range for a particular school; this will likely give them an admissions boost and greater access to scholarships. And if the scores are not within that range, they just won’t submit them.
Like many elements of college admissions, these new test-optional policies will benefit kids with access to online tutors, reliable technology, and the financial security to register for and reschedule their test dates. And it will likely disadvantage the same students who come into this process already facing barriers. While it’s important to point out the inequities that inevitably result from sweeping changes to the application process, I also want to acknowledge and thank the colleges who are trying to simplify this year’s applications and straightforwardly remove a requirement that many students will have difficulty fulfilling. In this instance, optional truly does mean optional, and students should feel confident submitting their applications without test scores.