Test-Optional Policies May Permanently Change the College Admissions Landscape

Erica Yang, Grade 10, Staff Writer

In the past, many colleges required students to submit their SAT or ACT scores when they applied, and these test scores were reviewed as a separate admission factor. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it became more difficult for students to take these tests, as many test centers were closed following the closing of schools. As a result, many colleges and universities—including all of the Ivy League schools—adopted test-optional policies for the class of 2025 in order to place students’ safety before evaluation. Some schools have already declared test-optional policies for the class of 2026, and others are expected to follow.

Ms. Teslik, a college admissions counselor at the High School of American Studies, defined this term. “Test-optional means exactly what the term sounds like,” she said. “When you’re applying to college, if the school is test-optional, you can choose to submit your SAT or ACT score, or you can choose not to.”

Colleges that adopted test-optional policies claim that students who choose not to submit test scores will not be disadvantaged in admissions. However, submitting high test scores may help students gain entrance into top universities. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, three-fourths of students admitted in the Early Decision round submitted test scores.

An unexpected side effect of test-optional policies was a dramatic increase in the number of applicants, especially at the more competitive universities. Without having to submit an SAT or ACT score, many students felt they had a better shot at top schools. “What happened this year, for the class of 2021, is that because many students couldn't take the test, colleges, especially with the more competitive schools, had a huge surge in the number of applicants,” Ms. Teslik said. “For example, MIT had something like a 66 percent increase in applicants this year, and we are seeing the same in the very selective schools like the Ivies.”

Increased applicant pools directly correlate with decreased acceptance rates. Most universities in the country are witnessing their lowest acceptance rates in history. For example, Vanderbilt University admitted just 6.7 percent of applicants for the class of 2025, compared to 10.4 percent of applicants for the class of 2024. That’s a 3.7 percent decrease in just one year — something unheard of before the pandemic.

Although test-optional policies may lessen the testing burden for applicants, they force applicants to focus more on other admission factors. Test-optional policies may also help level the playing field for students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds who may not have access to testing prep. “I think it’ll be a positive change for students who don’t have access to the SAT, which are disproportionately lower-income Black and Hispanic students, and for anyone who isn’t a good test-taker,” said Elizabeth Murray, a junior at HSAS. “Overall, I believe it will take some of the pressure off students but also force them to build up their portfolios.”

Luisa Valdez, another junior at HSAS, has a different opinion of the extent that an increase in colleges with test-optional policies will have on overall college admissions. “I think it doesn’t make a great change, honestly,” Valdez said. “Many students continue taking the exam, allowing them to have an advantage.”

Many seniors at HSAS, however, felt that submitting a high test score did not actually give them much of an admissions advantage. A number of students are grappling with rejection from top universities due to increased applicant pools, despite the fact that they submitted a test score.

Even though colleges are not requiring SAT and ACT scores, other admissions factors remain the same. “Every college and university uses different metrics and different ways to review students, so a lot of smaller colleges that are test-optional sometimes use a more holistic review of applicants,” said Ms. Teslik. “They are definitely looking at things aside from the tests, but the big ones are your GPA, recommendations, and what kind of personal statement you wrote.”

The future of test-optional admissions is not clear at the moment. Some colleges, like the University of California schools, have permanently done away with testing in order to review applicants in a more holistic way and accept more students who do not have access to test prep. Other universities may return to requiring the SAT or ACT once the pandemic ends. But all schools have certainly shifted away from standardized testing as a major admissions factor, instead focusing more on grades, coursework, extracurricular activities, recommendations, and essays.