By Dan Marlin
In recent years, much attention has been directed at the role of standardized tests in college admissions. While the criticisms leveled at the ACT and SAT are subject to intense debate (and could be the topic of an expansive blog post on their own), it is undeniable that this conversation has led colleges to adjust their admissions policies. Most schools have responded by going “test-optional,” allowing applicants to decide whether to submit an ACT or SAT score, while a much smaller contingent will no longer consider test scores at all. In this environment, you may be wondering if you should bother with standardized testing at all… and the answer is a resounding “yes,” for the many reasons we lay out below.
[But we always take into considerations the best interest of our students and will advise students whose scores don’t demonstrate their strengths to take a test-optional admissions strategy.]
So, why do the ACT and SAT still matter?
A good score bolsters your application
Same as it ever was. For the vast majority of schools, a good score can be a boon to your application, setting you apart from other similar applicants. As schools become ever more competitive, often as a consequence of test-optional policies that have led to increases in applications, any small edge is crucial.
Testing is widely available again
Gone are the days of last-minute test center closures (we hope) that were so common and unfortunate over the last year and a half. Beyond simply an inconvenience, uncertainty around test availability added just another layer of stress to an already stressful experience. Colleges understood that a student who didn’t have a test score simply may have been unable to find a location at which to test. Now, though, colleges know that students have ample opportunities to sit for the ACT or SAT…not to mention, if you attend public school here in Wisconsin, you will be taking the ACT in March in your school. (Other states have similar requirements, too.) So if you do not submit a score, colleges may assume you were able to test but didn’t get the score you wanted, or a score that would’ve been strong compared to those of other applicants.
Colleges’ own data say so
Compass Education Group analyzed admissions rates at a set of selective schools for the high school Class of 2020 (whose testing would not have been impacted by the pandemic). While noting the difficulty in separating cause from correlation, they found higher admit rates for students who submitted scores compared to students who did not. It may be hard to parse these data for the recently-graduated high school Class of 2021, as students were so heavily impacted by lack of testing availability, so it may be another year or two before we know if these trends continue. But these are the best data we have right now and provide more evidence of the importance of submitting test scores.
A “good” score is context-dependent
What constitutes a “good” score may vary not only by the school you are applying to, but also by the school you are applying from. It is a wise practice across education to use “local norms” to assess student ability and performance, comparing students to other students in their own school as opposed to every student in every school nationwide. Colleges have noted that they will consider these local factors in their admissions decisions. Practically, this means that even if your score does not appear competitive according to a college’s metrics (average score and range), it still might be considered strong if it outpaces typical scores for students in your school.
Majors, programs, or scholarships might require test scores
A university might be test-optional for purposes of general admission, but test scores may be required for certain programs, majors, schools, or scholarships. As one example, Indiana University is test-optional for its incoming class of freshmen, but its business school requires an SAT or ACT score (or onerous paperwork to try to apply without one). So in many cases, having a test score in your pocket will allow for more flexibility.
Testing gives you options
Test-optional admissions policies have been touted as a way to move away from standardized testing, but I prefer to focus on the “optional” part of that term here. Simply put, taking the ACT or SAT provides you with more options. If you do well, great! You can submit your strong score to set yourself apart from other applicants. If you don’t do as well as you may have hoped, you can still apply without submitting a score, which is exactly where you would’ve been had you not tested at all.
Ultimately, it is up to you to determine whether the opportunity cost of preparing for and taking standardized tests — the other things you’d need to forgo to try to get a competitive score — is worth it. For all of the reasons laid out above, we believe it is.