Understanding the Test-Optional Movement

October 3, 2019

The SAT has been a lightning rod for controversy and criticism for decades, and the College Board’s efforts from the 2016 redesign to this year’s Adversity Index fumble have only served to feed the skepticism of parents and educators alike. Now, scores of elite colleges, including 15 of the 100 top-ranked national universities, have adopted “test-optional” or “test-flexible” options. So, are college admissions tests going the way of the dodo, or is this all just savvy marketing?

Of course, the answer is more complicated than either of those. The reason that admissions offices are always talking about their “holistic” processes is that different parts of the application process allow different students to put their best foot forward. Students who fit the “absent-minded professor” stereotype might appreciate if their SAT or ACT score could be sent in place of their transcript entirely, whereas a student with pristine notebooks whose hands get shaky on test day might prefer the opposite. In particular, students who are able to put together a strong collection of supplemental materials pulled from their experiences in research or the arts most likely have the best chance of securing admissions sans SAT.

An Example

All of this ambiguity is on display with the test-optional policy at The University of Chicago, the first top-25 national university to institute one:

“Your transcript shows your academic record in the context of your school, but, since one school can be very different from another, it is useful to see evidence of academic achievement that exists outside of the context of your school…For many applicants, an SAT or ACT score can reflect their academic preparedness in this broader context.

Some applicants may feel that an SAT or ACT score does not fully reflect their academic preparedness or potential…If this is the case for you and you are a domestic first-year applicant, you may select UChicago’s test-optional method of application and not supply SAT or ACT scores with your application. We encourage students to take standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, and to share your scores with us if you think that they are reflective of your ability and potential… [We] anticipate that the vast majority of students will continue to take tests and may still submit their test scores to UChicago.”

Clearly, even test-optional schools still want to have it both ways, meaning you can bet these pesky tests are here to stay. But if you’re a competitive student whose standardized test scores are starting to feel like a nasty zit on the otherwise pristine complexion of your college application, consider leaving them out when applying to one of these high-ranking schools:

National Universities

6. University of Chicago (IL)
27. Wake Forest University (NC)
29. New York University (NY)
29. University of Rochester (NY)
40. Brandeis University (MA)
50. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (NY)
64. Worcester Polytechnic Institute (MA)
70. George Washington University (DC)

National Liberal Arts Colleges

6. Bowdoin College (ME)
7. Middlebury College (VT)
11. Colby College (ME)
11. Smith College (MA)
14. Hamilton College (NY)
17. Wesleyan University (CT)
21. Bates College (ME)
27. Bryn Mawr College (PA)

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