It seems like every week brings announcements of more colleges will be test optional for the 2020-21 admissions cycle. What is test optional and should a student take advantage of this?
First realize that test optional does not mean that admissions decisions are test blind. A test blind policy means that no SAT or ACT scores will be used as part of the admissions review. For example, the California State University system announced that it “will temporarily suspend the use of ACT/SAT examinations in determining admission eligibility for all CSU campuses for the 2021-2022 academic year.” However, a statement that test scores will not be considered for fall 2021 admissions is still rare.
What has been more common are announcements that a college will be test optional for 2020-21. In a few cases, such as University of Oregon and Oregon State University, this was a policy that had been in the works for several months and is a permanent change in policy. For many other colleges it is a temporary measure that reflects the fact that a great many students simply will not have test scores in hand by application deadlines. This will especially be problematic for Early Decision and Early Action applicants.
Under these temporary test optional practices, if test scores are not submitted an application will still be considered complete and will be assessed using other information provided. Students who do submit scores will still have those scores considered as part of their application.
In the absence of test scores, colleges will use factors such as GPA and course rigor, class rank, essays, extracurricular activities, and recommendations. They may also consider state of residence, legacy status, first generation college status, demonstrated interest, and if a student is likely to need financial aid.
Some colleges that announced test optional policies still say that test scores will be required for other purposes, like scholarships, honors college applications, or specific academic programs (such as engineering and nursing). Confusingly, some colleges, such as Cornell University, have indicated that they might allow some students to apply test optional, but expect to receive test scores from others. Many colleges will still prefer to see test scores from homeschooled applicants.
Who should consider using test optional admissions?
Students who do not have SAT or ACT test scores. Obviously, you can’t submit scores from tests you couldn’t take.
Students with test scores that are not a good reflection of their ability. For these students a review of GPA and other factors may better represent their potential for college work.
Who should still consider submitting test scores?
Students with strong scores from an earlier SAT or ACT sitting.
Students applying to programs or scholarships that use scores for eligibility.
Students whose academic records may be more difficult to assess. This can include homeschoolers, students from schools that use evaluations other than grades, and international students.
Keep in mind that a test optional or even test blind policy does not mean a college will increase the size of the next freshman class. It shifts the emphasis of the application to other factors. You can’t control the availability of seats at an exam, but you can control the time and effort that goes into creating a thoughtful college list, into writing essays and writing supplements, and into timely and complete application submissions.