Test Optional (And What the Heck it All Means)

By Jordan Kanarek and Megan Carlier


Testing and what the heck it means

A History Lesson

The year is 1969. The Beatles have dropped Abbey Road, their final album together. Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew made history on the moon. But, down on Earth, Bowdoin College was also making history. 1969 marks the year where the first college went test optional.

While thousands of schools were adopting the SAT (following in the footsteps of the UCs), Bowdoin recognized early that these standardized tests did little in the realm of understanding a student’s chances for success in college. All they did was drive greater divides between students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds from those who could pay to learn how to beat the exam.

Fast forward 50 years, and 820 colleges and universities became test-optional. Another 10 years go by, and you are now looking at over 1,000. While I am sure you are disappointed this history lesson did not include more about the Beatles break-up, I think it is important we recognize over 1,000 colleges and universities were test-optional before COVID-19.

Test-optional in the time of COVID-19

As 2020 continues forward, albeit with some uncertainty, more schools are adopting this policy, some of which now include schools like Columbia and Dartmouth. But, we need to dive deeper into this to understand what test-optional means for each of these schools – and how long it might last.

While each of these institutions is stating that they are now test-optional, some are piloting this for a year, like Dartmouth College. This means they may re-adopt their testing policy for the class of 2022, they may not. Others, like the UCs, have dropped the SAT, but have done so because they are “developing a new test that more closely aligns with what we expect incoming students to know to demonstrate their preparedness for UC.” To add a bit more murkiness to the UC waters, Regent Chair John A. Perez expanded further on the above in stating they will be test-optional for the classes of 2021 and 2022, test-blind (meaning they will not take scores into consideration) for 2023 and 2024 and ideally adopting their new test for the class of 2025. While also this may sound dandy, what they are not calling attention to is that scores will still be required for prospective NCAA athletes and students pursuing merit-aid.

Breaking down the terms

If you are currently scratching your head wondering what all this means, let us help break it down for you. Test-optional is a vague way for many of these schools to say: “we get it, you may not like these tests or have the chance to take them this year. So, to make sure we get a lot of applications, we won’t require the SAT or ACT. But, if you plan to be recruited or want money from us, we do need them.” So, while the UCs are stating they are doing all of this to help students, until they adjust the policy to include student athletes and those in need of merit aid, it isn’t as all-encompassing a policy as it would appear. Should they choose not to adopt this for students seeking money from institutions, then what is the point of calling one’s institution test-optional?

Schools that are truly test optional are the ones who believe in the original philosophy of it. They believe that test scores do not tell the whole story, and that there are areas of privilege that allow some students to perform better on the tests than others. They are giving students the opportunity to gain admission and scholarships by sharing their story through the rest of the application: course rigor, grades, involvement, essays, and letters of recommendation. And these schools do exist, places like DePaul University and University of Chicago.

But, should I send my score?

After we break all of this down, we are hearing a lot of confusion from many families on if they are allowed to send their test score to a test optional school or if they will be penalized if they don’t send it. Test optional means sending scores is just that – optional. If you believe your scores are additive to your application, send them and they could help. But if you believe your scores do not reflect your true academic ability or are detrimental for that applicant pool, then don’t send them and you will not be penalized for it (at least from an admission standpoint; we can’t say the same for merit money at every school). Generally speaking, if your test scores put you within or above the median 50% of reported scores, then sending your test scores is likely to strengthen your application. If your scores put you below that 50% range, then not reporting them to that test optional school will likely make a stronger case for you.

So, what do you do from here?

There is not one right answer here. Each student’s next steps will look different, but we want you to focus on what you can control here. If you are in the fortunate situation to be bored in quarantine and have the mental, emotional, and physical capacity to prepare and sit for one of the upcoming fall exams, we advise that you to do just that. This will allow you to have the most opportunities if you end up loving a school that doesn’t go test optional and will leave the most doors open for merit money. And, if you end up not being proud of your score(s), you do not have to send them to test optional schools. However, if you have been severely affected by COVID-19 and/or do not have access to testing, then focus on what you can control and make sure your college list has test optional schools on it. Then start focusing on everything else that is in your control, like being the stellar human you are and showcasing that throughout your college application through your essays, activities, and letters of recommendation.

To download a one-page guide about what test-optional means for you, click here.

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