If you are submitting ACT or SAT scores to colleges, or SSAT or ISEE to private schools, does the movement toward test-optional admissions help you or hurt you? The answer is simple: Yes, it does. But how can this be so? Won’t my excellent test scores make me stand out from those who are not submitting any scores? The answer to this question is: no. If all this seems counterintuitive to you, that is because colleges and private schools are changing, adapting to the new reality of our changing world. This is not to say that a high test score is bad; quite the contrary. High test scores are one measure of your academic ability that colleges and private schools appreciate as a relatively objective measure of academic intelligence. Notice that I use the word “relatively,” because everyone knows that test scores can be improved with the assistance of professional tutors, or in some cases classes. So, now that I have stirred up confusion in this salad bowl of admissions characteristics, let me do my best to unravel the mystery of college admission and private school admission for 2022 and beyond.
Of all the changes to college admission and private school admission in the last few years, perhaps the one that is most misunderstood is the movement toward test-optional admissions. Many colleges are now test optional—some permanently—while others are gravitating back to mandatory test submission. For applications that come in unaccompanied by test scores, colleges and private schools are doing their best to make up for this missing data by placing more value on other factors such as GPA, extracurricular activities, proven leadership skills, analysis of one’s use of free time, character, recommendations, and essays.
Despite having their critics, standardized tests do provide useful information. For one thing, they provide a balance against unequal grading policies that exist from school to school, state to state, and region to region. Certainly, a 4.0 GPA at one school may be far more significant than a 4.0 GPA at another. Without test scores as a validator, students with the more meaningful 4.0 GPA, e.g., from a school with much harder classes and grading criteria, lose their advantage to some degree. This can be counteracted if the college or private school admissions committees are familiar with the school from which the student is matriculating.
However, test scores, or more accurately lack of test scores, hurts high-achieving students even more by increasing the number of applications received by top colleges and private schools. Why? Because students who are unable to attain high test scores, and thus would have been unlikely to apply to highly competitive colleges or private schools under the old system, now can apply with a degree of impunity since their test scores won’t be considered. In other words, more students can apply to competitive schools simply because test scores are not required. Some of these students will be accepted which means that fewer spaces are available for students who are capable of earning high test scores.
There’s one more reason why test optional admission hurts those who are submitting test scores. It stands to reason that only students with high test scores will submit them. Students without high test scores will simply take advantage of the test optional opportunity and hope that their other attributes are good enough to be accepted. As a result, those who submit test scores find themselves competing against a more elite group of students. Stated another way, the test optional policy has created two separate pools of applicants: those submitting test scores and those not submitting test scores. Each will be competing for a smaller subset of seats.
I am not trying to disparage the test optional movement. Indeed, the reasons for going test optional are valid and important. I am merely commenting on the consequences. It is eerily similar to the arguments for and against affirmative action. The reasons are entirely valid as is the impact. But for those who are harmed by these policies, it may be hard to understand or accept the need.
I will conclude by stating that you can’t change the current situation regarding admissions; you can only counteract this new reality by making yourself a more attractive candidate. That means that every admission factor you present to colleges or private schools, other than test scores, must be stronger. You must work a little harder. You must present a stronger case to the admissions committees for your candidacy. That is something that takes significant time, significant effort, and a significant personal commitment.