All, College Admissions, College Applications, Covid-19, Testing

What is Test Optional?

What is test optional for college admissions and when should a student take advantage of this?

Test Optional vs Test Blind

First, realize that test optional does not mean that admissions decisions are test blind.  A test blind policy means that SAT or ACT scores are not used at all for admissions. For example, the University of California will not use test scores to make admissions decisions or award scholarships. However, test blind admissions is rare. 

Test optional means that the college will consider an application complete with or without test scores. Students who do submit scores will still have those scores considered as part of their application.

In 2020, most colleges used some kind of test optional practice, because students simply didn’t have the chance to take tests because of Covid-19. Most colleges discovered that their incoming class was still highly qualified. Some schools had huge increases in numbers of applications because students didn’t feel held back by lower scores.

Colleges put greater weight on 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. 

Who Should Consider Applying Test Optional

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. Students with special needs may also want to consider requesting accommodations during testing. Approval is now automatic for students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan.

Who Should Submit Test Scores?

Students might want to submit test scores if they have strong scores that add to the strength of their application. This would include scores above the average score for the college. Students applying to competitive direct entry programs may find strong scores help their application.

Some programs still use scores for eligibility. This may include programs like nursing or education with a state requirement for testing. It can also include competitive scholarships like the Georgia Hope/Zell Miller scholarship or the Florida Bright Futures scholarship.

Some colleges prefer to get test scores for students with less traditional academic records. 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. 

All, College Admissions, College Planning, Covid-19

Covid-19 and College Admissions, Part 3

This is part of a series of periodic updates to help address some of the “What about …” questions that families have about the effect of Covid-19 on college admissions.  If you’re interested, check out Part 1 and Part 2.

Boston University created a stir in the higher education community a few days ago, when they reported that working through contingency plans included a model in which in-person, on-campus classes didn’t resume until January 2021 or even August 2021.  While this seems unsettling at first glance, it was part of several possible contingencies they were considering.  I’m glad that they are contemplating the possibility that it won’t be business as usual in the fall. 

Most colleges are dealing with issues on a priority basis – spring semester, admitted student events, commencement ceremonies, and summer programs.  Just this morning, the US Naval Academy announced it was cancelling several weeks of summer STEM and leadership camps for high school students. 

It is prudent for colleges to try to game out options if they cannot return to normal operations at the end of summer or for an entire school year.  I hope that most colleges are having these conversations.

Virtual Admissions Visits

I had planned to spend next week on an extended college visit road trip with my youngest son.  We were going to see several campuses and also watch the finals of the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge.  He would be checking out some colleges on his list and I would get an in person feel for colleges so I could discuss them with future clients.  Like many other families, we have shelved our road trip plans (though I’m still hoping to watch the Rover competition in some future year). 

I’ve been taking advantage of a number of online webinars with college admissions offices, and my son has an email inbox full of links to virtual info sessions, live chats, and opportunities to engage with current students.  There is no question that this can all get overwhelming. 

College Wise has created a lengthy spreadsheet of virtual resources for colleges.  However, keep in mind that it’s very difficult to keep up with new information being offered by colleges around the country.  What’s more, an exhaustive listing doesn’t really matter if you only care about a dozen colleges. 

Use resources like this as a tip sheet, but also follow the colleges you care about on social media (I like Facebook and YouTube, but Twitter and Instagram can also point you towards good information and chances to connect with colleges).  Look beyond the official news streams like the main university or admissions department accounts to student run newspapers, alumni groups, and social media groups for individual departments, clubs, and teams.  Use the information you find to create your own list of resources. 

I encourage my students to make a list of qualities that make a school a good fit.  This is essentially a grading rubric to use when watching the virtual info sessions, reading through the social media feeds, or searching through the college websites.  Focus on what makes the school a good match for you, not what gets it publicity.  It doesn’t matter if they are a Big 10 powerhouse if you don’t care about sports.  If you haven’t yet considered what factors you’re looking for, these surveys by Steven Antonoff are a great place to start. 

As you go through email, feel free to unsubscribe from colleges you know aren’t a good fit AND reach out and ask for info from colleges you do care about.  It can be hard to manage the flood of email even during a “normal” admissions season.  College emails are marketing; they shouldn’t command your time if you know they aren’t a good match.


For juniors, as ever my motto “Don’t Panic” applies.  Not because I have all the answers, three easy tricks to get into your dream school, or a secret side door that will amaze you; but because panic rarely solves crisis situations and often makes them worse. 

There is a lot about the current situation that isn’t under our control.  This includes school schedules, cancellation of cherished activities, changes in grading policies, and financial uncertainty.  It’s normal to grieve what you are losing this year and to be uncertain about what is coming.  As far as college admissions goes, it’s also worth remembering that this is happening across your whole district, state, and country.  Colleges aren’t going to hold it against you personally that the SAT was cancelled or that your junior year grades include a semester of pass/fail.  This doesn’t mean that highly selective schools will be less competitive next year.  It does mean you should lessen your attempt to tightly hold onto what you don’t really control.

I read a couple good posts from admissions officers that spoke to this.  Interestingly they were both from colleges in Georgia.  Both are encouraging and also serve as a reminder that staff at admissions offices are also going through these chaotic times and trying to adapt to new realities.  

Being Seen – This One Is for the Juniors by Rick Clark at Georgia Tech.

An Open Letter for Juniors and Seniors from Giselle F. Martin at Emory University

Financial Matters

If you used 529 funds to pay for college expenses AND the college refunded money this year, you definitely want to consider the tax ramifications of getting this money back and consider if you need to take actions.  This article from Kiplinger did a great job of exploring the situation. 

Look for the Helpers

Fred Rogers used to tell a story about his mother’s advice to “look for the helpers” when there was a scary situation.  I’ve been encouraged by the number of colleges whose students, faculty, and alumni are rising up to help others struggling in the present situation.  Some campuses are on the forefront of coronavirus research, a number of medical schools are graduating students early in order to send new doctors and nurses to where they are needed, and many students and faculty are using school maker spaces to 3D print and sew protective equipment for critical uses.   A lot of colleges talk about developing attitudes of service.  I appreciate seeing these words become actions.

All, College Admissions, College Planning, Covid-19

Covid-19 and College Admissions, Part 2

As the reality of Covid-19 and the need for physical distancing starts to sink in, many more “What about…” questions are arising.  I am writing periodic updates to summarize where we are at the moment.  Part 1 is available here.

Keep in mind that while the situation is uncertain in many ways, you aren’t alone in going through this.  Other students, other families, and even the staff at schools and college are also trying to figure out what this means in the immediate and long term. 

Advanced Placement

The testing schedule for AP exams is now out.  College Board has been releasing information about the content of each test. For example, AP history exams will have one document-based question with a reduced number of documents. 

Information on individual exams (click on the + next to course titles to open details). 

AP exam FAQs.

There is also assistance available for students who need help getting online for the exam

Test Optional Colleges

The number of colleges offering Test Optional admissions is growing.  Fair Test maintains a database of schools with some kind of test optional practice. 

One of the biggest decisions is that by University of California to relax undergraduate admissions requirements including not requiring the SAT for fall 2021 freshman admissions.  UC does not label this as a “Test Optional” practice and states that it is a temporary measure in response to Covid-19.

Keep in mind that these test policies are set by individual colleges or college systems. It is not possible to make a general statement that the SAT and ACT “don’t matter” for the Class of 2021 college admissions cycle.  It is also false that admissions will be easier at colleges that ease their test requirements.  Admissions to highly selective colleges will remain highly competitive and may be less predictable than in previous years as other factors (GPA, course rigor, letters of recommendation, full pay status) are weighed more heavily. 

College Visits

Since last week, more colleges have added online sessions for both admitted seniors and high school juniors who are able to do in person college visits.

The College of William and Mary has a virtual tour, virtual admissions session, and a curated list of other online material (blogs, videos, and links to info on student life).  They even offer contact info for current students who are liaisons for their academic departments. 

James Madison University has a Virtual Choices series of live chats available on Facebook and YouTube to give students an opportunity to hear from departmental faculty and current students. I listened to one from the School of Business and thought it was well done.  I’m looking forward to watching more of these.

Sometimes individual programs or departments are putting out virtual sessions.  For example, University of Cincinnati’s College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS) has a Virtual Close-Up with a departmental tour and session focusing on specific majors. 

This week I’ve been part of meetings with college admissions staff. One thing to keep in mind is that their offices are also responding in crisis mode.  If there is information that would help a senior make a more informed decision, they should definitely reach out to the admissions office or financial aid office.

Financial Aid

As I mentioned previously, for many families, Covid-19 is creating financial turmoil.  The current situation is definitely one that could be grounds for appealing a financial aid offer.  This might involve not only loss of parental income, but a change in asset value, loss of student income, medical expenses, or the need to care for extended family members.

This page offers guidance for financial aid officers on how to use professional judgement to consider financial situations that don’t fall into neat categories. 

Unfortunately, not all colleges will be in a position to increase financial aid offers.  They may be faced with many more students who find themselves in a position of needing need-based aid at the same time that the college’s financial situation has become uncertain.  Even colleges with strong endowments will have hard decisions to make over the next few months.  As examples, Smith College described the challenges and the steps the school is taking and Stanford University outlined financial decisions as well as additional cancellations for the summer term

Final Thoughts

There is a lot to absorb right now.  Students who expected to be visiting colleges to find their best fit instead find themselves extrapolating from online information.  Don’t rush to make decisions.  Take time to ask questions and get answers.

A recent survey of students and parents indicated that a significant percentage were reconsidering college plans for the fall.  Choosing a college closer to home, choosing a less expensive college, starting at a two-year college, and deferring college for a year were offered as possible alternate plans.  These may be paths that are worth considering at your house.

All, College Admissions, College Planning, Covid-19

Covid-19 and College Admissions, Part 1

Notes from a Challenging and Changing Situation

As the reality of Covid-19 and the need for physical distancing starts to sink in, many more “What about…” questions are arising.  I plan to do periodic updates to summarize where we are at the moment.

Keep in mind that while the situation is uncertain in many ways, you aren’t alone in going through this.  Other students, other families, and even the staff at schools and college are also trying to figure out what this means in the immediate and long term.

For additional information, check out Part 2.


College Board cancelled the May SAT exam.  A decision about the June SAT exam will likely be made in the first half of April.  They are exploring ways of offering more opportunities to test in the fall, but that is subject to conditions down the road. 

The April ACT was rescheduled to June 13.  I expect similar discussions about safety during testing and access to testing are happening at ACT. 

Some colleges have announced that they will be using test optional admissions either for a short period or as a permanent change.  Boston University will be test optional for one year.  Tufts is doing a three-year trial.  University of Oregon and Oregon State University are going test optional as a permanent change.  The list of test optional schools is likely to grow. 

Advanced Placement tests will be 45 minutes, online, open book/open note tests with Free Response Question formats.  Exams will only test material that most classes were able to cover by March.  Students who decide not to take the exam will be able to cancel without financial penalty.

College Board is offering online Advanced Placement review sessions, available to all students.  Recordings of these sessions are available at the Advanced Placement YouTube channel.

The open book, shorter format will emphasize analysis and application of knowledge.  Students should not assume that the open book format will equate to an easier test.  The issue of cheating on the test is being taken into account in test design.  They will use algorithms to detect plagiarism. 

More info about Advanced Placement is available directly from College Board

Many have asked if this year’s scores will be accepted in the same way by colleges as other years.  Keep in mind that policies for Advanced Placement credit vary widely from very liberal to very restrictive.  For example, Virginia Tech grants credit for most AP courses beginning with a score of 3 and assigns more credit for higher scores, but has specific course correlations depending on the student’s major.  Stanford only grants credit for a few courses (mainly foreign language, math, and science) and may require a score of 5 to receive credit.

Right now, it seems likely that most colleges will not change their AP credit policy, but will actively advise students to consider if they are ready for the next course in a sequence (ie, Calculus 2, advanced chemistry).  Some colleges might offer bridge coursework in the summer to help with student success.  This is a good thing for students to consider even under normal situations.  For foundational courses in the student’s major, it may be worth taking the course at the college in order to have the best understanding of the material.  This is a topic that is still developing, since colleges are currently more focused on getting their spring courses online for current students.  Don’t expect there to be a uniform policy from all colleges.

College Visits

Many juniors and seniors had their plans for spring college visits upended.  A number of colleges are responding to this with online admissions sessions and Q&A with admissions staff and current students.  If you aren’t seeing this yet from schools you are interested in, reach out to admissions to ask about availability.  YouVisit offers official virtual tours of many college campuses. 

Students may need to spend more time engaging with college websites.  Look at pages for individual schools and departments within a university (ie, The School of Education or the College of Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering or the Department of Physics).  Look for social media channels that are not controlled by admissions, such as a YouTube channel for the department or a Facebook or Instagram feed for a sports team or club.  High schoolers can also ask to be put in touch with current students who share their interests (major, sports, activities).

Financial Aid

For many families, Covid-19 means a significant change in their financial situation.  Because financial aid decisions are based on the prior-prior year’s taxes, a current drop in income would not have been taken into account.  The current situation is definitely one that could be grounds for appealing a financial aid offer.  This might involve not only loss of parental income, but a change in asset value, loss of student income, medical expenses, or the need to care for extended family members.

This College Board page offers guidance for financial aid officers on how to consider financial situations that don’t fall into neat categories.

Realize that while your family may have reasons for appealing financial aid packages, not all colleges will be in a position to offer more financial aid.  You will also want to consider the type of aid that is offered (grants vs work study vs loans).  When schools shift to online delivery and limited on campus presence, work study jobs may also be suspended.

Final Thoughts

This may be a good time to revisit Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be and the Stanford report on the importance of student engagement over college rankings, A Fit Over Rankings.

Don’t feel singled out by the current situation; everyone is feeling their way through what decisions are right for them.  Don’t obsess over what you can’t control or might-have-beens. 

A few surveys have indicated that as many as 1 in 6 high school seniors are reconsidering their plans for the fall.  Some are considering a gap year, starting at a 2-year college, or going to a college that is closer to home and/or less expensive.  These alternate options may be worth considering.

For seniors, some colleges have shifted their decision day from May 1 to June 1.  If this would help you make a decision, ask the admissions office if this is a possibility.  Schools that are trying to fill a class are likely to be more flexible.  Some colleges are still taking applications or have reopened applications for students in their local region.

For juniors, take this time to cast a wider net of schools you are investigating.  Applications will still be read in the context of what was possible for each student at their school.  Students don’t control the testing calendar or if grades are offered.  However, highly selective schools will still be highly selective and highly competitive.  In a “normal” year, a prudent college list would include schools at a wide range of admissions likelihood and would include schools that are affordable.  In uncertain times this becomes even more important.

Many colleges report that their admissions staff and financial aid officers are more available than usual to respond to students and families.  Don’t rush into making decisions, but use this time to investigate important questions — with colleges, with your family and with yourself.