People tend to perceive “test-optional” as meaning that if a student opts to submit SAT scores to a college, they’ll be a factor in admission. However, if a student chooses not to submit scores, that fact won’t disqualify her or him from fair and equal consideration.
But what does test-optional really mean?
Consider this scenario: Applicant A chooses to submit test scores to a college because his scores exceed the average SAT scores of the college’s last freshman class, a metric published every year. His scores will be weighed as a factor in his admissions decision. Applicant B chooses not to submit SAT scores. All other things being equal, Applicant A will be admitted ahead of Applicant B.
This reality would be denied by a college’s administrators, who resent even being asked about their test-optional practices. However, as an applicant, you’re well advised to ignore them on this matter. Put in the work to score as high as possible on the SAT or ACT. If your scores are average or better at a college you want to apply to, then submit them.
The majority of applicants to top-tier colleges get it. Most of them submit test scores to test-optional schools. For example, 76 percent of the Early Decision applicants to the University of Pennsylvania’s Class of 2025 this past fall chose to submit scores even though they weren’t required to do so.
There are reasons why college administrators obfuscate regarding test-optional practices. They want to encourage the submission of as many applications as possible, including those from students who don’t score well on tests. The more applications that a college receives, the lower their admission rate will be. The lower its admission rate, the higher a college rises in the rankings of U.S. News & World Reports and other publications. This helps to increase revenue by raising tuition. Colleges may operate on a not-for-profit basis, but they’re still businesses.
There’s another way that test-optional policies improve a college’s ranking. The policies are presented by colleges as a helping hand to those who don’t test well or can’t afford assistance to prepare. Although it is both of these things, it’s also a way for a college to raise average test scores. If scores are optional, it follows that only applicants with high scores will submit them. This results in significantly higher average freshman SAT and ACT scores than in the past. Average test scores are used as a key metric in the algorithms of the rankings publishers.
A New Paradigm: Test-Blind Policies
Evidence that a college’s administration has truly rejected the use of standardized tests as predictors of academic success is when they announce a test-blind admissions policy. Test-blind colleges don’t accept SAT or ACT scores from applicants even if they’re submitted. At this time, only a few schools are test-blind but, significantly, the list includes the University of California System, Caltech, and MIT.
Sarah Lawrence College was test-blind but converted to test-optional because U.S. News & World Report wouldn’t rank their school at all without test scores. However, the publication has announced that it will begin to rank test-blind colleges in 2021. Their new policy is likely to encourage more colleges to join the trend toward test-blind admissions.