SAT-ACT and the Testing Policies of Universities


Long before COVID-19, there were over 1,000 universities that had adopted a stance saying that they were test optional schools. Since the outbreak of COVID, most universities have taken the position that they will be test optional for students applying for college admission for the fall of 2021 and that policy will remain in effect for anywhere between one to three years. The CollegeBoard (SAT) and ACT have announced that they are offering their tests every month starting in August and September, 2020 respectively.

If colleges have announced that they are test optional for the fall, why are there test dates being offered? What does the term “test optional” really mean? 

For admissions purposes, the standardized test scores were the second most important factor of a student’s application after their academic record. Test scores not only play a role in admission, they are also a factor in determining scholarships, financial aid, admission to honors programs, and sometimes placement in freshman classes (English and Math). If you are looking at test optional schools, you need to know if you are truly eligible for all of their scholarships. At many institutions there is a correlation between the test scores, GPA and the amount of merit aid a student receives. The higher the test scores and GPA, the higher the amount of merit aid that is awarded.

TEST OPTIONAL POLICY – This policy means that standardized tests do not play a large role in the admissions decision process at the university. This policy does not mean that test scores will not play a major role in the admission for those who choose to submit scores. One of the reasons cited for adopting this policy has been that universities wanted to enroll a more diverse student body.

What this policy means: A student does not have to submit SAT/ACT test scores since they are not required by the university. It is left to each individual student whether they want to submit test scores. If test scores are submitted as part of the application, they will be considered by the university.

Examples of universities that had this policy in place before COVID-19: Bowdoin College, George Washington University, Wake Forest University, Bates College, Wesleyan, Bryn Mawr and the University of Chicago. The impact of these policies have been an increase in applications at most of these schools even though they have the same number of placements to offer students. That means that a university becomes more selective and an unintended consequence is that the university’s average SAT/ACT scores increases with the resulting increase in application submissions. The university’s ranking in US News & World Report goes up as does the diversity of the student body.

Please note that the data suggests that an overwhelming majority of students submit test scores to highly competitive/selective colleges that had test optional policies.

A research study was conducted that evaluated the impact that test optional policies of 28 universities had on applications and admissions at those institutions. One of the startling findings was that non-submitters tended to be admitted to a university at a lower rate than students who submitted their test scores. The study also found that the students who did not submit test scores received less financial aid than those who submitted test scores, especially with merit aid awards. The University of Chicago, which is a test optional school, still encourages students to submit test scores if the students believe that their scores are an accurate reflection of their ability and potential as do most other test optional schools.

Exceptions to the test optional policy: Test optional policy may not extend to programs such as –

  1. Highly selective majors (like computer science, nursing, engineering, physician’s assistant)
  2. Accelerated/ Dual Degree programs (for ex. BA/MD programs)
  3. Honors Programs at a university
  4. Consideration for Scholarships
  5. Home-schooled Applicants
  6. International Applicants
  7. Student-Athletes applying to NCAA Division I and II schools (now test optional)

In California, the most recent test optional announcement that came was from the University of California system. They are going to be test optional until 2022 and then test blind after those admissions cycles for in-state students,  and they hope to develop their own test. If they are unable to develop their own viable test, they plan to make the test blind policy permanent for in-state students.

Who should submit test scores?

  1. Students who have competitive scores within the range required by the university
  2. Students who want to apply for or be considered for merit scholarships
  3. Students who want to be considered for or want to apply to honors programs
  4. Students who want a really good financial aid package
  5. Students who plan to apply to really competitive majors or limited-enrollment majors
  6. Students applying for dual-degree or accelerated major programs
  7. Student-athletes applying to NCAA Division I and II schools  (now test optional)

The fall 2021 application cycle has been so impacted by COVID that all the norms are out the window. The NCAA just announced that students do not have to submit test scores as part of their admissions applications. Universities have waived test requirements for even the most selective majors. It is important that you contact each university you are applying to in order to find out what their policies are and what are the exceptions to the policies. Universities did not anticipate tests being canceled through the fall, so it is best if you reach out to universities and learn what they expect of students.

What if you decide not to submit your scores? If you decide not to submit your test scores, then other parts of your application take on a much more significant role in the admissions process. You will need to show that you have a strong GPA as a result of taking the most rigorous curriculum offered by your school, for instance. The universities will also closely scrutinize your extracurricular activities list, teacher recommendations, your personal statement and supplemental essays, interviews, and other application components that you submit. If you are applying to a particularly competitive program, you may want to get letters of recommendation from teachers from the field. For example, an engineering major should ask for letters of recommendation from your math and science teachers, physics specifically.

CONDITIONAL TEST OPTIONAL POLICY — This policy is based on the idea that SAT/ACT scores are not required if the student has achieved a certain GPA or has a strong academic record. This was the policy followed by Arizona State University, the California State Universities (see discussion below about their current stance) and Pace University.

TEST FLEXIBLE POLICIES — This policy allows students to substitute other tests in place of the SAT or ACT. Students are allowed at some institutions to submit SAT Subject Tests, AP or IB scores in lieu of the SAT/ACT. Some universities that have a test flexible policy include Brandeis University, New York University, and Drexel University.

TEST BLIND POLICY — This is the most generous of the testing policy since they will not consider test scores even if a student decides to submit them. Admissions officers will not see the scores since they will be blacked out in their files. There may be conditions placed on the student that need to be met, such as a required GPA, in order to be part of the test blind pool.

Hampshire College had adopted such a test blind policy prior to COVID-19. However, the California State Universities announced that all of their 23 campuses will be test blind for students applying for admission for the fall of 2021. However, test scores will be used as one of the measures to place students in the proper Mathematics and English courses once they enroll.

Both the CollegeBoard (SAT) and ACT initially stated that they will offer some version of at-home testing if conditions are really unsafe as a result of COVID. However, they have both announced that they do not plan to administer online tests in the fall of 2020.

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