‘Test Optional’ Equals ‘Extra Credit Possible’

summer test prep

Many, if not most, colleges are enacting “test optional” policies for applicants for the 2020 (and in some cases 2021) admission cycle.  Some colleges were already test optional, but the testing challenges presented by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have greatly expanded the list of colleges that are test optional for the current cycle.  

For some current seniors who were planning to take the SAT for the first time last spring and then perhaps a second test this fall, they may be out of luck.  Due to local restrictions in many areas, test dates have been cancelled – sometimes even at the last minute.  Some students, even if they were registered, simply haven’t been able to take the SAT due to cancellations and closures. This challenge is precisely the reason many colleges are citing they are now test optional for the current cycle.  

But what, really, does test optional mean?  

In my twenty years of experience working in admissions, I can affirm that optional does, in fact, mean that it’s up to you.  It’s absolutely your choice whether or not to send your scores. And it will not count against you if you do not send the scores. But not counting against you isn’t exactly the same thing as saying scores don’t matter.

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Rather, test optional works much like extra-credit on a test.  Sure, you don’t have to do the extra-credit.  But lots of kids in the class will.  So while you might have the chance to earn a 100 on the test, some of your peers who chose to submit the extra-credit now have a chance to score a 110.  And much like how college admission works, maybe the teacher promised Skittles to the top ten scorers.  If you didn’t do the extra-credit, you’re a bit less likely to leave class that day tasting the rainbow.

Practically speaking, say if you’re on the admissions committee, reviewing an applicant. You see a 1550 pop up in the “score” field. You can’t “unsee” that.  That student now has a “perk,” even if subconsciously, that an applicant who chose not to send scores does not have. It MIGHT be that the other student chose not to send scores because they were low.  Or this year it MIGHT be that it was actually impossible for the student to take a test. 

Read Between the Lines

Personally, in most years, I don’t have a strong opinion about whether or not colleges should use the SAT in admission.  Honestly, it’s probably a good idea for some. And then it’s a not-so-good idea for others given their particular situation and institutional priorities.  There’s likely not a universal one-size-fits-all policy regarding testing and college admission. Especially when scores are factored into most ranking systems and rankings influence more things than you can imagine. 

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Having said that, I do feel it’s a bit disingenuous for some colleges to lead students to believe “test optional” means they don’t use scores in the review process.  If a college truly means that scores can’t influence a decision then they shouldn’t accept scores from anyone.  It’s easy enough to program the data systems to simply not populate that data field on the student’s record.

Saying “we’re test optional” is very different than saying “we don’t even see the scores.”  Perhaps this would have been a good year to say, “we’re not even going to accept scores” if colleges truly wanted to say that scores wouldn’t matter. But they definitely didn’t say that…

Think of It as a Perk

Test optional is another way of saying that it’s a perk for those who do choose (or are able) to send high scores. And that’s OK, but the colleges need to own it. There are lots of perks in the process that aren’t available to all students. Legacy = perk. First-generation college student = perk. Underrepresented race/ethnicity = perk.  Boast a .750 batting average = perk.  Female = sometimes perk.  Male = sometimes perk. Visited campus 5 times = sometimes perk. Only applicant from North Dakota that year = perk. Parents made donation to build a new student center = perk that no one likes to admit. The reality is that there’s more “extra-credit” available to some students than others. This year that includes possible extra-credit for those students who were able to sit for an SAT and present strong scores.

So while I don’t have strong opinions on whether or not a school should adopt a test optional policy, I do think it’s important for applicants to realize that test optional does not mean that sending strong scores (if you’re able to do so) won’t help your chances for admission.  And, subsequently, it also means that not sending strong scores (even if you couldn’t take the test) is one less perk on your application.  


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