By Liz Jackson – Director of College Counseling
The COVID-19 Crisis has added uncertainty to nearly every component of our lives, from Zoom etiquette and travel plans to much more serious issues like health and economic security. It is no surprise, then, that the crisis is having significant effects on the college admissions process, too. You may have noticed that dozens of colleges–even the nation’s largest public university system, the UC–have announced that they will become test-optional–at least for the 2020-2021 application cycle. This has led many students to wonder, “Do I still need to take these tests seriously if so many colleges aren’t requiring them?” The short answer, for most students, is yes.
Why are colleges going test-optional?
It is important to understand why colleges choose to become test-optional, and particularly why they might choose to make this decision now. Often, a college’s decision to become test-optional increases the number of applications to that school. Therefore, some colleges become test-optional as a way to increase application numbers and, as a result, selectivity. In general, colleges are also hoping to mitigate the disadvantages to two groups of students when they make these decisions: students from low-income backgrounds and/or students who have demonstrated academic excellence in their courses and extracurricular activities but who struggle with standardized testing.
With SATs and ACTs cancelled throughout the spring, students’ access to testing is more limited than it is during a typical year. This will pose a more acute problem for low-income students who typically have less access to effective advising, fee waivers, etc. with the closure of schools. Of course, limited access to testing may affect much broader swaths of students, too, and colleges took this into account when they made the decisions to become test-optional next fall.
Do test scores matter at a test-optional school?
Even if colleges allow students to apply without test scores, that does not mean that they are not looking at test scores. These colleges are not practicing “test-blind” admissions–that is, they will still review test scores from applicants who send them. Having strong test scores will certainly benefit a student’s chances of admission, even at a test-optional college. As a general rule-of-thumb, students who have test scores at or above the median for that college should submit them.
While hundreds of colleges have test-optional admission policies, especially now, many colleges still require test scores for admission to special programs, like Honors Colleges, or for scholarship consideration. In addition, many major scholarship-granting organizations still require test scores as part of their application process, so, to be eligible for them, students must have test scores.
How do colleges evaluate a “no-test” application?
When colleges evaluate applications that do not include test scores, they must rely on the other components of the application to understand a student’s qualifications. This means that there will be increased scrutiny on that student’s letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities and community involvement, essays, and, of course, rigor or coursework and grades. At highly selective colleges, if you are a student with strengths in all of these areas but worry that your scores are not-so-high, then you are in luck that you don’t have to submit scores! However, for many students, this isn’t the case. It is also important to remember that, particularly at highly-selective colleges, many applicants do send scores, and they send very high scores. Your application will be evaluated alongside those applications.
How can you stand out if you really don’t want to submit a test?
As many schools and districts move to pass-fail grading this semester, and many students’ traditional extracurricular activities are limited or cancelled, it is more challenging than ever for students who are not submitting test scores to help set themselves apart from other applicants in a competitive admissions environment. Students who are in a position to do so this spring should use their extra time to demonstrate leadership–organizing a new virtual student group or a fundraiser for a particular cause–or dedication to their communities by helping neighbors with yard work or delivering items to those in need. Students who don’t plan to submit test scores should also pay special attention to their essays, making sure their essays are creative, compelling, and well-written.
Remember that test scores are just one component of your applications to colleges. Even colleges that do require testing acknowledge that test scores are less significant than a student’s transcript in the application review process. But it would be a mistake to give up on your efforts to achieve a score you are proud of, or to assume that testing no longer matters, in light of the recent announcements from colleges. Instead, you should simply continue to do your best. Work hard to prepare for whatever test dates are available to you. In the end, it may be that you choose not to submit test scores to some colleges. But by doing your best to achieve high scores, you will give yourself the best possible chances of admission to your favorite colleges and have the most options available to you.