The Appeal of Test-Optional Colleges

Over 850 colleges don’t require the SAT/ACT as part of the admissions process.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith just the thought of the SAT or ACT sending a rush of anxiety through the average teenager, the opportunity to apply to college without having to sit for either test brings a big sigh of relief from a high school student. If only the reality were so simple.

What test-optional means Depending upon the college, test-optional can mean that students are not required to submit an ACT or SAT score as part of their admissions application. A handful of schools are test-blind, meaning they won’t look at scores at all. The others look at scores if they’re submitted, but won’t ask for them if they’re not. Some require scores only for placement or advising; for out-of-state applicants; if a minimum GPA, class rank or other exam requirement is not met; for specific majors; or to qualify for merit-based scholarships.

Note: Check a college’s admissions website to determine their specific test requirements.

Why colleges go test-optional The original goal of taking college entrance exam scores out of the admissions equation was to create more opportunities for low-income and minority students, and to help schools become more diverse. The idea was that these teenagers tend not to score as high and/or don’t have the financial resources to receive the same quality coaching as their more affluent peers. Yes, colleges know all about the advantages of test prep programs. College entrance exams were once used as a measure of a student’s potential success in college, but with so many students receiving help preparing for the exams, the validity of that theory has come into question.

Studies conflict over whether more opportunities have been created for minority and disadvantaged students at test-optional colleges. Some may argue that the institutions are the ones who have benefited. The students who don’t submit generally earn lower scores, so the average test score goes up at these schools. The number of applicants also rises, making the college look more selective.

Number 1aWhat colleges look at instead Without SAT/ACT scores factoring into the equation, colleges look more closely at a student’s GPA and class rank, the rigor of a course schedule, the number of AP/IB exams, extracurricular activities, leadership roles, the quality of the essay and anything that makes a student standout from her peers.

Where to go test-optional Many of the colleges that don’t require tests for admission include tech, music and art schools, primarily because test scores don’t shed any light on how a student will do in these programs. Religious schools generally don’t ask students to take the SAT/ACT either. About 30 Northeast liberal arts colleges pass on the tests, as well. For a complete list, visit FairTest.org, which also includes details on what scores are used for instead of admission at specific institutions. 

How to know which way to go Unless your son or daughter has a serious testing phobia, I wouldn’t include whether a school is test-optional in the criteria when creating a prospective colleges list. But once the list is made, check out the requirements for tests scores, whether they’re for admission, a merit-based scholarship, placement, etc. Also, make sure your student has a good story to tell inside and outside the classroom since that will receive more scrutiny.

The bottom line We all know test scores don’t tell the whole story about a student, but they can keep college applicants from being accepted to their top choice school. As a family, decide if test-optional makes sense for your teenager. What will matter more is being realistic during the admissions process. Encourage your student to apply where he best fits the college’s profile in terms of GPA, class rank, course requirements and, if he does take either exam, test scores.

Share your views on test-optional colleges in the comments section below.

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2 Responses to The Appeal of Test-Optional Colleges

  1. mskretzschmar says:

    Hi Anne,
    I’m starting to get the feeling that test optional is more of an accounting move. Instead of parents paying money to test prep services, they’re paying the money to colleges that have gone test optional. I can’t say that I have seen any data proving this but it does seem that colleges don’t have to report lower test scores while charging families more. It will be interesting to see if the numbers actually show this in the next few years.
    Michelle

    • Michelle,
      I do agree that colleges seem to be the ones benefiting from going test optional. It may not be that they’re charging more, but the increase in applicants definitely means they’re earning more money on application fees.

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