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Test-Optional: Changing the College Admissions Landscape

What is “test-optional”?

Test-optional is an admissions standard that allows students to apply to the institution’s programs without submitting standardized test scores. This means that an applicant makes the decision when completing his or her application, whether or not he or she would like to submit his or her scores from any relevant SAT or ACT test-cycle. Offering this approach enables students who excel in the classroom, leniency, and opportunities during the application process. While this can be beneficial in myriad ways, both for the student and the institution, it does add layers of complexity to the equation. For starters, why is the student applying test-optional, and more importantly, what other pieces of the applicant profile can be used to weigh the student’s academic achievements? Schools use test scores as an objective quantification, enabling the comparison of students nationwide. With that removed, something must fill the void, and typically, this means a more stringent examination of grades, essays, and extracurriculars.

Additionally, and most importantly, how can the institution better understand who the student is and how they will contribute to their respective college community in and out of the classroom? One often overlooked element of the college application process is the college admissions counselor’s task of admitting students that not only meet their academic benchmarks, but that also fit into their institution’s “graduating class” of students. The enrichment of the community and experiences that shape its diverse perspectives are integral pieces to many institutions' holistic review determining whether to admit students or not and projecting levels of success. After all, much of the college application process is steeped in statistical analysis, where students' entire application is translated into ones and zeros for an algorithm to extrapolate likelihoods for success.

How many students enter vs. how many graduate? How many students graduate and seek further educational opportunities or find employment within an expressed time-frame? In order to positively manipulate these statistics, schools are tasked with identifying the right applicants to offer admission, but losing test-scores, a large piece of the applicant profile, makes this determination one of nuance and holistic examination.


Here is a sampling of schools that are accepting test-optional or test-flexible applications for 2020:

University of Chicago Bowdoin College Wake Forest University Bates College Colby College Wesleyan University Smith College Colorado College Bryn Mawr College University of Rochester College of the Holy Cross Mount Holyoke College Ithaca College Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Emerson College Wheaton College Fashion Institute of Technology Drew University Hofstra University Montclair University Quinnipiac University University of Massachusetts Salve Regina University La Salle University Seton Hall UniversityWorcester Polytechnic Institute Skidmore College Pitzer College Whitman College George Washington University Gettysburg College Franklin & Marshall College Union College Furman University Denison University Sewanee The University of the South Lawrence University James Madison University American University University of Arizona Dickinson College Rider University Flagler College Sacred Heart University High Point University Select SUNY Schools Assumption College Kansas State University Fairfield University Marquette University Augustana University Muhlenberg College Temple University Wofford College Clark University Trinity College Providence College The New School DePaul University Loyola University Maryland Allegheny College Marist College Saint Joseph’s University UC Schools The Juilliard School Smith College Wesleyan University Brandeis University American University Middlebury College Colorado College Johnson and Wales University


What type of student benefits most from “test-optional”?

As a result of the pandemic, more schools that had considered embracing a test-optional review, have decided to pilot the programs immediately. This makes it even more crucial to understand what omitting scores could mean for an application. A better understanding of the other elements of the profile is the first step in making a well-informed decision about whether test scores could help or hinder a specific application. So what else goes into a college application? Both the Common and Coalition applications gather background information on the student relevant to their geography, familial history, academic performance, and future goals. In conjunction with the main applications, each school will ask for additional information. This is typically related to program offerings, what activities the applicant would like to participate in on-campus, and short essay questions. Many schools that have chosen to embrace the test-optional process have begun adding one or two additional essay prompts that are required if the student chooses to apply sans test-scores. These essays allow the admissions counselor to dive a little deeper into who the applicant is and how they can articulate his or her thoughts and ideas.

If a student has an uncharacteristically low score compared to their academic record, opting to go test-optional is likely a beneficial decision for their profile. Adversely though, if a student does not have a strong profile lacking a rigorous academic record or highlighting participation in school and community programs, then omitting test scores will drive counselors to evaluate their less-than-full application with more scrutiny. Thus, counselors may not have enough information to make an informed decision on the true merit of a student’s candidacy and what they are capable of achieving should he or she be offered admission. Making this determination is entirely based on what the applicant’s profile looks like without test scores. Can it stand on its own and speak to the strengths of the student? If the profile cannot stand on its own, then going test-optional may leave the counselor with too little to admit the student.

What are the disadvantages of “test-optional”?

While test-optional can be an excellent opportunity to put forth the best profile of the student without a troublesome score, it is also limiting in regards to what it presents for evaluation. Without a standardized metric like the SAT or ACT score, it can be difficult for an admissions counselor to decide on a candidate. If the applicant’s profile shows middle-of-the-road classes with poor grades in addition to an activities list that only has a few sparse points of participation, the counselor will not have enough to offer admission. With a profile that seems lackluster, it is crucial to include as much as possible to round-out the attributes of the student. Additionally, schools that move towards test-optional policies tend to have inflated rates of applications because it increases students' hope of gaining admission to schools designated with a reach status; this has been notable with the University of Chicago and will likely be the case in 2021 for Boston University, Tufts, and the University of California Schools. By making test scores optional, more students apply, which drives their admission rate down and competitive level up, helping rankings, samplings, and other metrics. In many cases, a school's decision to move test-optional benefits the school even more so than the applicants.

How do you build a strategy that fits your student’s unique needs and goals for the future?

The college admissions process is ever-evolving, and the strategy to help a student reach the finish line with an offer from a school that will enrich their lives and foster their future careers is one that is as unique as the student in question. Each approach must be tailored to the student and their applicant profile. In addition to considering their profile, it is also important to consider the requirements of the institution and the program to which the student is applying (ie engineering or pre-med). With this in mind, weighing the profile against the requirements of the school is the best way to create an application that presents the student as someone who not only deserves to join the campus or program in question but will also contribute to the continued growth of the community they will join. Whether this is with or without test-scores, the profile must speak to the incredible applicant it represents.


For help navigating this process, call (973-908-0741) or email ( our team of Astute counselors! We are always here to help. After all: your success is our success!

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