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What to Know About Test-Optional College Admissions

Updated: Sep 10, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on many changes in the realm of education. From being sent home from campuses to having to take classes online, students have had much to adjust and adapt to. Not surprisingly, the college admissions process has been impacted as well. Now that high school has become disrupted due to the virus, a growing number of colleges and universities are waiving standardized test requirements and making ACT/SAT scores optional for applicants seeking to enter in the fall of 2021. Understandably, such a major change raises a number of questions for parents and students alike. We’ll answer the most common—and crucial—of them below.

What exactly does it mean for a school to waive its standardized test requirements?

The short answer is that for those seeking entrance in the fall of 2021 (or, in other words, seeking to join the Class of 2025), an application without standardized test scores will be considered complete. This means that students may still submit test scores if they have them and would like to, but that those who do not submit scores will not be penalized. This applies to all standardized tests: ACT, SAT, and SAT Subject Tests.

Harvard, for example, has written that it “will allow students to apply for admission to the Class of 2025 without requiring standardized test scores,” and that “[s]tudents who do not submit standardized testing this coming year will not be disadvantaged in the application process. Their applications will be considered on the basis of what they have presented, and they are encouraged to send whatever materials they believe would convey their accomplishments in secondary school and their promise for the future.”

Similarly, Stanford has announced that “for this year only, Stanford will review applications with or without standardized test scores, leaving the decision in the hands of the applicant. If you are not able to take the ACT or SAT, your application will not be at a disadvantage. If you have already taken the ACT or SAT, and you feel that your scores are a positive reflection of your academic preparedness, then you are welcome to self-report them. Your application will not be at a disadvantage if you choose not to report your scores.”

The long answer is that different schools may choose to do things differently, and that applicants should be aware of the exact policies of each of the schools they intend to apply to. For example, while many schools are waiving standardized test requirements for just this next application cycle, some are doing away with the requirement for a longer period of time. Davidson College, Haverford College, Middlebury College, Oberlin College, and Elon University are a few of the schools that are going test-optional for the next 3 years. Even more strikingly, some schools will be permanently test-optional moving forward. These include, among others, Scripps College, The University of Oregon, and The University of San Diego.

And the entire University of California system, which includes schools such as UC Berkeley, UCLA, and UCSD, is implementing its own unique plan, which includes being test-optional for Fall 2021 and 2022; test-blind (meaning that scores may be submitted but may not be used in admissions decisions) for Fall 2023-2024; and either using a new, UC-created test or waiving the standardized test requirement altogether in Fall 2025.

These differences are important for future applicants—particularly those who will seek admission in cycles after this upcoming one—to know.

Which schools are implementing this change?

A large and ever-growing number of schools—including many that are highly sought after for admission—are going test-optional for at least this next cycle. They include, among many others, all 8 Ivy League schools, Stanford, MIT, Caltech, USC, NYU, and all 9 UCs that offer an undergraduate program. Our college counselors keep fully up-to-date on which schools have implemented this policy and use this information to help guide students in the applications process.

How will this change impact the college admissions process?

Naturally, without test scores, increased attention will be given to the other elements of a student’s college application. These include grades, extracurriculars, arts portfolios, and—perhaps most crucially—personal statements and supplemental essays. Now more than ever, it’ll be important for students to convey to college admissions officers through their writing why they would be a good fit for the college in question, what they hope to gain from their time there, and the contributions they can make. Because of the increased emphasis on this element of the college application, students would be well advised to begin the essay writing process a bit earlier than they would have otherwise. The summer is a great time to start!

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