by Brenda Ward – Director of College Counseling

When the University of Chicago, one of the nation’s most prestigious research universities, announced this summer that it would be test optional—meaning it would no longer require an ACT or SAT score from applicants—the buzz was heard around the admissions world. The University of Chicago was one of over 100 higher education institutions that went “test optional” in the last four years, bringing the complete list to over 1000 colleges and universities (although the overwhelming majority of colleges, especially the more prestigious universities, continue to require the ACT or SAT for admission).

Why are these colleges making tests optional?
There are a couple of reasons why some colleges are questioning the use of standardized tests in admissions. Colleges who already have a large and impressive applicant pool are doing so to widen the diversity of their campus. This is the reason cited by the University of Chicago and other highly selective test optional schools. For colleges who would like to expand their applicant pool (and thereby raise their selectivity, an important factor in rankings), test optional can be a way of increasing the number of applications a school receives. And then there is the philosophical debate—what do standardized tests really measure—that is at the core of the discussion.

Is test optional right for your student?
Test optional admission is a good option for the right students, the ones who have performed well in rigorous courses in high school, but have not performed as well on standardized tests (even with or despite diligent preparation). Without test scores, colleges will rely more heavily on grades and coursework to predict a student’s academic potential. For students with issues related to anxiety, attention, and language, standardized testing can be particularly challenging with its time limitations. These students are likely to present a better application without standardized test scores.

What are the options in “Test Optional”?
Some “test optional” schools allow the student to exclude standardized test scores from the application completely: George Washington, Wesleyan, and University of Chicago are among these. Others are “test flexible” and ask applicants to submit something in lieu of test scores: graded writing samples, videos, or scores from AP Exams or Subject Tests, for examples. Brandeis and NYU are two schools with “test flexible” practices. There are also “test blind” colleges (test scores aren’t considered for any applicants) and “test conditional” (tests are optional for only some students). Research is required!

Will withholding test scores affect my chances for merit aid?
Possibly! Some colleges require test scores for merit aid consideration; others do not. When the University of Chicago announced its new policy this summer, it made scholarships available to all its applicants—with or without test scores—and expanded aid to include full-tuition scholarships for students whose families earn less than $125,000. Again, practices vary—research is important.

Where can I find out more?
The National Center for Fair & Open Testing keeps the most up-to-date list of test optional colleges and universities. Students who are considering submitting applications without test scores should review individual school policies by talking with an admission representatives on campus visits or at campus presentations and by carefully reading policies on the school’s web site.