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Will Test Optional Increase Your Admission Chances?

What is ACT-SAT Test Optional?

Test Optional in college admissions is not a new movement, but it has certainly increased in intensity as a result of the pandemic and even before. In 2020 widespread cancelations of ACT and SAT test dates throughout the country forced even colleges who highly value and desire ACT-SAT scores as part of their admission decision to abandon this requirement for the class of 2021 and many have extended test optional policies while others revert to requiring scores. 

Test OPTIONAL means just that - it is the student’s option to submit scores or not. Keep in mind that many parts of the college application process are “optional”: honors, extracurricular activities, pursuing rigorous coursework, interviews, and sometimes even recommendation letters and some essays. However, most students still submit these optional items, especially if they are applying to competitive colleges.

Test optional is not test blind. Test blind is when a college will not look at your test scores - even if you send them - regardless of how well you scored. Test scores have no bearing on getting into these schools. Out of the 3500+ colleges in the US, fewer than 75 are test blind and most on the list admit the vast majority of their applicants. 

Should Students Still Take the ACT/SAT?

The question isn’t should your student test. The question is should your teen submit test scores. More on that below.

YES - everyone should test and prep for those tests so they have the maximum scores for their ability. 

George Washington University, which has embraced test optional since 2015, encourages all students to test before deciding whether to submit scores. Carol Lee Conchar, Associate Director for Regional Programs at GW, explained in a 2020 Covid related webinar, students “should take the test for…experience…and to see how well you perform” because having a score “in your back pocket” is valuable.

Georgia Tech’s Director of Undergraduate Admission, Rick Clark, has a fantastic analogy for deciding whether to test (and submit). He describes the admissions approach as a “stool” with different legs, including GPA, course rigor, extracurriculars, and letters of recommendation: “If you choose not to have some of that support on the testing leg, we’re just going to look a little closer and put more weight on the rest of the stool.” He says students should ask themselves, “Do you want some of the weight on testing, or do you want it removed from that?” 

Bottom-line - if you don’t have scores, the admissions team is going to take a closer look at your other factors. And you never know when your target school may start requiring scores again in the future. 

Which Colleges are Test Optional

Nearly every college was Test Optional in 2020-21 for the graduating class of 2021. This was to even the playing field for students unable to test due to Covid and other reasons. While students had the option to test and submit, according to a study ACT commissioned by an independent agency, EY-Parthenon, testing was only down 20-30% in 2020. 

In my own home state of Ohio where in late winter all juniors take the ACT or SAT, as decided by their home school district, the tests were given both in 2020 and 2021. This made schools like The Ohio State University, our flagship institution who heavily relies on test scores as part of the admission decision, to be reluctant to move to test optional. In fact, they were very late to the test optional dance and didn’t move to test optional until June 22, 2020 when most colleges had made the move in April or May. While OSU is keeping test optional for one more year for the class of 2022, they make it quite clear on their website that their strong preference is to have test scores from students. 

OSU: “We believe that standardized test scores provide useful information and predictive value about a student’s potential for success at Ohio State.”

As always, check directly with each college for policies and exceptions which may relate to you. 

Does Submitting Scores Give An Advantage

We now have data that indicates at some universities there was indeed an admission edge to those applying with ACT or SAT scores. Overall they tend to be more selective institutions. Frankly, I feel if colleges really want to even the playing field for applicants, they should be forthcoming on data that indicates how they make their decisions. Few do. 

Fordham University (NY) is one of the transparent schools. The data they released for admissions for the class of 2021 shows that while 64% of their 45,000 applicants chose to not submit test scores in the fall of 2020, the students who did apply with test scores were admitted at a greater rate. The increase rate of admission for those with tests was 28.7%.

Here is the breakdown of additional schools that are transparent enough to reveal the data that demonstrates test scores are an advantage at their institution.

  • U of Pennsylvania (Early Decision): 62% of students submitted ACT or SAT scores and those students had an admission advantage of 94%
  • Georgia Tech: 63% of students submitted scores and they had 121% better chance at admission; they now require scores again. 
  • University of Georgia test submitters had a 50% better chance of being admitted; they now require scores again.
  • Emory University data shows an increased admission rate of 122% for those submitting scores

Schools like the University of Virginia and Georgetown held their cards a bit closer to the chest and released only limited data that does seem to indicate an advantage. We know at UVA 28% of the admitted class didn’t submit test scores, but 72% of those admitted did. When I personally reached out directly to admissions for further data to calculate the actual admission advantage, they simply referred me back to the original data that lacked full transparency. During the Early Decision cycle at Georgetown, 93% of admitted students had submitted scores.

Read Between the Lines

Gather the following information to try to discern how the school truly feels about your option to submit scores.

A couple of examples that were recently in the news:

Dartmouth Dean of Admissions:

“Mr. Coffin says he is conflicted about going test-optional. Before the pandemic Dartmouth considered standardized test scores to be among the most important information alongside grade point average, essays and class rank. Seeing strong scores helps his team feel more confident that admitted students could cut it at the Ivy League institution. “It becomes a moral question,” he said. “I don’t want to admit someone who is going to struggle.” (source: Wall Street Journal)

Princeton Dean of Admissions:

“We still see standardized testing as one important piece of a holistic process. It’s not the only piece, but it can be very helpful to us to help predict how students will thrive here academically,” says Karen Richardson. The piece adds that Princeton will not be making test-optional policies permanent. (source: The Daily Princetonian)

Sources to determine who wants test scores: 

  • Was the school an early or late adopter of test optional? Most late adopters were hanging on to hoping for scores because they find them useful
  • Read the school’s official test optional policy and look for phrases that indicate they prefer scores (such as the OSU example above), find scores useful and/or say this is a very temporary test optional policy only due to Covid
  • Look for data from earlier classes admissions that would indicate favor for those submitting scores

Next Steps

Now that you understand the importance of testing, the first step is to determine ACT or SAT. In the absence of pre-ACT, PSAT, or actual ACT and SAT scores, LEAP offers free diagnostic tests for both to determine your best fit. 

Take Alex for example. Alex took the pre-ACT in 10th grade then the actual ACT in late fall of his junior year. He’s results didn’t match up with his GPA nor what he, and we, believed to be his best. Instead of chugging away at ACT prep, we hit pause and gave him a diagnostic SAT (an actual retired SAT). His SAT score was an equivalent of an ACT 23; he had only scored a 21 on his ACT. Alex switched gears registering for the March SAT and started 1:1 individualized tutoring in January. When his SAT scores came in, he was at the 83rd percentile when his ACT had been at the 50th percentile. 

Know your test of strength and plan for it.

Some students should test as early as summer after their 10th-grade year, while others should wait until the winter or spring of 11th grade. Learn which testing timeline applies to you on the LEAP blog. 

Test Prep

You should have a plan in place 8 to 10 weeks before your test prep and your test prep will likely start anywhere from 3 to 8 weeks ahead of your test date. Don’t wait to get your customized prep plan as LEAP prep is so incredibly effective that we fill to capacity. Options to get your suggested prescriptive plan for improvement:

We have options galore! Online or in-person. Group or individual. ACT or SAT. And even a do-it-yourself called Perfect Practice. 

Registration & Test Day

While registration closes about one month prior to the test date, you’ll want to register early to secure a spot at your high school or the closest location to it. Who wants to drive across town on unfamiliar roads at 7 am on a Saturday? Instead you want to go in prepped, rested, cool, calm and confident. Registration is housed on the testing agency’s site: ACT and SAT.

Generally, although there are a few exceptions, you can expect your results to appear in your online account approximately 10 to 14 days after you test. Once you have your results it’s time to figure out if you are finished testing or should retest for further improvement.

Final Decisions

Once you are finished testing, take each college case by case on whether you’ll apply test optional or not and put your best foot forward with your application. 

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