Test Optional Admissions: Seniors Beware
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Test Optional Admissions: Seniors Beware

Dr. Mark L. Fisher dives into the confusing and ever-changing trend of test optional college admissions.

Dr. Mark L. Fisher
Dr. Mark L. Fisher

“Cancel my SAT tutoring,” the high school student said to his parent. “I don’t need to take either the SAT or ACT in order to apply to college.” The parent replied, “Of course you need to take either or both of those tests.” “But, mother, there are around 1,000 colleges that accept applications without either test now.”

Let’s look at this phenomenon. Each week another college is added to the list of test optional colleges. We are not looking at colleges which many people didn’t even know exist – some, very small. However, long ago Bates College (1984) and Bowdoin College (1969) both went test optional and they are selective in the admissions process. Those colleges seemed to be an oddity. There wasn’t a stampede to test optional admissions.

To better understand the admissions process, let’s look at the criteria. What do colleges look at for each applicant? Courses and rigor of classes for sure, one’s GPA, then SAT or ACT scores. If you don’t believe that, look at the test tutoring companies and individual tutors, plus online test prep programs. Extra-curricular activities, especially sports and leadership, counselor and teacher recommendations, and sometimes, the interview, demonstrated interest, the essay and special talents.

Now, in many cases, SAT/ACT scores sometimes disappear. What happened and why? And, do they really fade in the background? Are they even seen by admissions?

Colleges let you know that they look at their submitted scores, but that is only one factor. Then, why do colleges aim to get the best scores possible for their institution? The U.S. News & World Report rankings consider scores in their ranking. No wonder colleges want the best scores possible. Why do parents run to have their children tutored for these tests? Who can afford the tutoring? The wealthier you are the more clients you provide for the tutors. That leaves the low-income families with less help in the process. So, how can colleges gain a more diverse population? Not from families that can’t afford help for their child.

Most importantly, studies by the colleges that did become test optional found no major difference between accepted students who submitted their scores and those who did not.

So what exactly does test optional really mean? If the colleges do not need scores, the big emphasis is still on courses, grades and rigor of the curriculum. Low grades usually will not get one far. Yes, there are talented students with low grades who, for one reason or another, will be wonderful college students. And, that is not just low-income or economically disadvantaged students. Or, first generation students. However, certainly all the other factors listed above may mean an acceptance letter.

For the student excited about test optional: buyer beware. You think that you are off the hook by not sending your scores. But the catch is that some test optional colleges will not consider you for merit scholarships without the scores. Thus, a 4.0 GPA will get you zero money without your test scores. Yet, other colleges will consider you for merit money without those scores. Therefore, read the fine print!

In addition, athletes may still be required to send scores for Division 1 and 2 colleges. Home-schooled students are another group that may always need SAT/ACT scores. Which schools are test optional? See, www.fairtest.org. Realize that each week it seems that another college is added to the list.

Another possibility is “test flexible,” where students may send a combination of AP, SAT, Subject Tests and others. Here, the college at least wants some of your best scores.

Test optional allows a student with great grades but low test scores to apply to a certain college and not worry that the scores will mean a denial. True, selective colleges let you know that they view the student holistically and then you see their scores that are higher than your SAT/ACT scores. Or, don’t always believe what you hear.

Colleges do benefit from the test-optional option. How?

Improves diversity by accepting more low-income and minority students who don’t have the advantages that wealthier students possess.

In the world of college rankings, the college does not have to report scores lower than their usual scores. Afterall, scores are a part of the rankings. Students with high scores are favored by the colleges. Without lower scores, the ranking situation will not change because an accepted student had lower scores than what the college desired.

These colleges seem to generate more applications since students who realize that their scores would not help them gain an acceptance letter would not otherwise apply. For the college, that means more applicants, and as a result, more students could be denied, and their acceptance rate looks even better.

What are a few of the selective colleges/universities that are test optional? Bates, Bowdoin, Wesleyan (Conn.), Brandeis, Franklin & Marshall, Muhlenberg, Bucknell and George Washington. Now the bombshell: The University of Chicago, usually ranked in the top 10 colleges in the country, has now gone test optional. Furthermore, unlike most of the test optional colleges, those who apply for merit scholarships there are still eligible without the scores. Will Chicago’s peers follow its lead? Time will tell.

Mark Fisher is a college and career consultant at Fisher Educational Consultants, www.fishereducationalconsultants.com, and a consultant for the College Planning Institute, www.GotoCPI.com.

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