How Optional Is Test-Optional?

by Jen Kaifesh

There have been a lot of questions since the UC system’s announcement that standardized tests will be optional for students submitting applications in the fall of 2020.

Test-optional admissions policies have been around for years, and it is extremely important to understand the difference between optional and not considered.

If a school says that standardized test scores are not considered, then there is clearly no benefit to submitting them – but these schools are few and far between. Test-optional colleges still use standardized test scores to help admissions officers compare students. UCLA, for example, received over 135,000 applications this year. Differentiating between students when virtually everything on an application is subjective (yes, even grades – hello, grade inflation!) is a real challenge, so colleges want hard data whenever possible. Defending their continued use of test scores, the University of California’s faculty review committee included in its 2020 report that “[f]or any given high school GPA, a student admitted with a low SAT score is between two and five times more likely to drop out after one year, and up to three times less likely to complete their degree compared to a student with a high score.”

Consider the University of Chicago, which is famously the only top-10 university to implement test-optional policies. Many applicants who had struggled with testing felt their chances of acceptance were suddenly improved. The reality? The Class of 2023 – the first group of applicants under the test-optional policy – had the lowest acceptance rate and highest standardized test scores in school history (a 5.9% acceptance rate, and average ACT and SAT scores of 34 and 1530, respectively).

Why? Test-optional initiatives are directed at first-generation and socio-economically disadvantaged students who might not have the means to register for the SAT/ACT, let alone take it multiple times and/or prepare with a tutor. Trying to level the playing field for historically underrepresented communities is a noble cause, but colleges also know that test-optional policies encourage more applicants to apply, thereby increasing the number of applications and perceived competitiveness while decreasing their acceptance rate.

Schools that sincerely will not hold a lack of standardized test scores against applicants from more affluent backgrounds will ask for additional information in lieu of scores: extra essays, interviews, videos, et cetera.

All of this brings us to the current COVID-19 situation: the UCs and a few private colleges have announced temporary test-optional policies for this year’s junior class (Class of 2021). While this will no doubt be a trend among other colleges this year, students should remember that while a college may not require scores, they still very much want (and are actively accepting) them – and this includes the SAT, ACT, and AP exams.

Don’t forget, the goal is never to do the minimum required – it’s to position yourself as the strongest candidate possible. Taking the initiative to go above and beyond will always serve you well, and strong test scores will help you anywhere you apply…especially when other applicants may not be testing at all.

Please feel free to reach out to us with any questions or concerns about your individual goals and timelines, as well as how to maximize your time while life – from classes to sports and college visits to social events – feels put on hold. The college application process was already overwhelming enough before these unprecedented times, and we are here to help you navigate the rapidly changing landscape!