Along with the countless changes that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to our society is the inability for most high school students to take the two traditional college entrance exams - namely, the SAT and ACT. While other admissions exams such as the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, ISEE, and SSAT have moved to implement remote testing options that allow students to take their exams at home, the College Board and the ACT have not, as of yet, offered the same options. As a result, and given the growing viral caseload that will undoubtedly lead to further cancellations at test sites in August and September, hundreds of thousands of rising seniors will be without test scores as they apply to schools this fall and winter.
In the midst of this crisis, almost every major US University and Liberal Arts College has implemented test optional policies that allow students to send applications without test scores. Some schools are treating this year as a one-time exception, while others intend to maintain these policies indefinitely. Given the extraordinary circumstance, the implementation of test optional policies is absolutely appropriate and there is a strong argument to be made that they should be maintained indefinitely. In order to increase the rates of admission from underrepresented communities and those without the financial means to afford test prep, schools should absolutely be willing to consider students who do not provide scores from standardized tests. However, there are a number of misconceptions regarding these policies that all students and parents should be aware of.
First, test optional is NOT the same as test blind. Only a very limited number of schools such as the University of California system are refusing to even consider standardized tests for the upcoming admissions cycle. For test optional schools, scores are still considered and can provide a competitive edge over other applications. It is just no longer required to provide test scores in order to apply.
Second, test optional does not mean that admissions is any less competitive. In fact, with the growth of test optional policies it is almost guaranteed that overall admissions rates are going to drop even further as a larger pool of applicants submits applications to the top schools in the country. Admissions rates for students from underserved communities are likely to rise (which is the major benefit of these policies) but these rates are almost certain to drop for almost everyone else.
Finally, remember that in college admissions you are largely competing against your peers. If other students at your school have stellar test scores and you do not, that can be a strike against you. In the current environment, most people will not have test scores, but when the pandemic subsides and people can once again test regularly you will want to consider such factors as the average SAT/ACT score at your high school.
So, if you CAN test and you believe you can score well, it is absolutely still in your interest to do so. If a college is comparing two similar applicants and one has a 34 on the ACT while the other provides no score, the former candidate obviously has a significant advantage. Extracurricular activities are technically optional as well, but no college advisor would tell you to just sit at home and play video games (even if that’s all many of us have been able to do during this crisis).
Test optional policies are a great first step toward addressing many of the problems of racial and income inequality in this country, but standardized testing still has its place to allow students to demonstrate their aptitude. For most students, that means that you will want to try your best to achieve stellar scores on the SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests.