“Test Optional” wasn’t intended to help students

One of the many impacts of COVID19 has meant a drastic change admissions policies related to the SAT and ACT. Colleges and universities have sold it to applicants as “test optional”, and students and parents have taken that to mean that they no longer need to take the SAT or ACT in order to be admitted to the schools. It’s true that students don’t need the tests to apply to most schools in the country. What isn’t clear right now is how those decisions will affect admissions.

How we got here

March 13, 2020 was a Friday and a full moon. It was also the day before an national SAT date and a couple of months into the spread of COVID19 across the country. Many students found pictures like the one here at their test centers. (That’s an actual picture one of the students I work with sent me on the 13th.) A couple of weeks later, College Board announced that they were cancelling all SAT’s until the August 29th date. ACT cancelled its April test in its entirety. On top of that, most test centers across the country ended up closed for the June ACT test date as well.

Students who needed test scores to apply to college weren’t going to be able to take a test until the July ACT at the earliest. Both companies added test dates and worked to increase capacity, but just like that, colleges and universities had a real life SAT math problem they needed to solve. They’d already lost millions of dollars because of the closures in the Spring of 2020. Now they were going to have to worry about filling the empty seats in the Fall of 2020 and 2021.

It came down to the math

It sort of became its own SAT Math problem.

Jason is the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at a university. He needs to fill 6,000 seats for incoming freshman. The university typically accepts 70% of its applicants and 35% of those enroll. Jason’s university requires students to have an SAT or ACT score. Most of the students who apply to Jason’s university take their tests in the Spring of their Junior year. This year, only 25% of the students who would have applied will be able to take a test before the applications open on August 1st. Which of the following reactions would be most effective?

A) Order wine by the case
B) Go on social media and complain about the unfairness of it all
C) Start researching grants to make up for the 75% revenue possible in 2021
D) Drop the test score requirement

Less selective schools had no choice but to remove the test score requirement if they wanted to have any sort of applicant pool to choose from. Estimates are that about 1 million students take their first SAT or ACT in the Spring of their Junior year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 2 million high school graduates enroll in college every year. If schools didn’t change their test requirement policies, they were effectively cutting their customer pool at least in half.

Realistically, it was much more than that for most schools. Students applying to selective schools probably at least had a test score from the Fall. Since more than 50% of colleges admit more than two-thirds of their applicants, if those schools kept the test requirement they might not have much of an applicant pool.

Test Optional isn’t for the students

The math problem gets to how this is for the colleges. Faced with dramatic budget shortfalls from the Spring of 2020 and questions about what the Fall of 2020 would look like, removing the test score requirement was a bureaucratically simple solution.

Pre-pandemic, plenty of colleges were already in fiscal trouble. Now they’re scrambling. Scott Galloway has been vocal about the bad decisions colleges are making and what to watch out for. “Becoming test optional” was a way that schools could ensure an applicant pool and they could sort out the results in the Fall.

The problem so many of the test optional statements smack of disingenuousness. You can see it in the statements related to their announcements. Most of them have something similar to Brown’s:

Students who are unable to submit SAT or ACT scores this year due to COVID-19 will not be disadvantaged in our admission process. If this describes your situation, please know that your application will receive full consideration by our admission committee. We will continue to review test scores that are submitted, and will also bear in mind that those who do submit scores may not have been able to take the SAT or ACT more than once.

So many questions. What does “will not be disadvantaged” mean? Does “unable to submit” mean that you weren’t able to take a test at all or that you just don’t have the score you want? How do you even quantify the last sentence?

It makes sense that all of the “Ivy plus” schools instituted some sort of similar policy. They’re typically competing for the same pool of applicants. The same is true for less selective schools. And those schools don’t have a gigantic endowment to fall back on. Their survival is based on tuition, so they have to get the applicants in if they’re going to have a chance to stay alive.

Should you apply “test optional”

Unsurprisingly, many students take “test optional” to mean they don’t need to take the SAT or ACT any more. If you’re in the class of 2021, that might be true. If you’re in the class of 2022 or later, it probably isn’t.

Lost in the announcements is that it’s still in the best interest for students to have a good test score. It might be even more important. College admissions continues to be an arms race. If you have a great GPA and are at the top of your class with a competitive transcript, you might be fine. However, having a great test score provides admissions offices with a solid data point that tells them you not only make great grades but you also have a great handle on the material you’ve studied.

Deciding if you should apply without a test score requires some research. You need to get information about the profile of previous admitted students. How does your GPA compare? Extra-curriculars? How well is your transcript aligned with what you want to major in? How will not having a test score affect your chances for merit aid?

It also isn’t clear whether applying without a test score is for students who weren’t able to take the tests at all or for students who aren’t happy with their scores. Clearly the original intent was for the former; nevertheless, many students are looking at the policy strategically.

If you do decide to apply without a test score be prepared to have to answer a few additional essay questions. Some of them are related to why you weren’t able to submit your scores while other questions are intended to give the schools more information about you.

If you’d like help with your college prep plans, schedule a free introductory consultation with me. In-person and online sessions available.