Test-Optional Colleges: What’s The Catch?

College admissions tests—and the SAT in particular—have been under scrutiny for many years.  Most people who work in higher education have stories about students accepted with relatively-low SAT or ACT scores achieving near-perfect GPAs in college (and, on the other hand, kids with outstanding test results being just average in their college classes).  

Are the SAT and ACT useful, and are they fair?

Studies suggest only a slight correlation between success on the SAT and success in college.  If you want to know how well a student will perform in college classes, you’re better off taking into account the academic transcript.  Wesleyan, a test-optional school since 2014, states this explicitly on its website:

“At Wesleyan we know the best predictor of success in college is a student’s academic record, the track record of day-to-day work in the classroom; the school transcript continues to be the primary focus of our application review, with or without standardized test scores.”

Not only is the SAT a less-than-perfect predictor of college readiness, but it’s also been suggested that the test favors students from privileged backgrounds who can afford test prep, and who have better access to other forms of academic and cultural preparation.  The College Board (which develops and publishes the SAT) continues to receive criticism that the SAT discriminates against students who come from underserved backgrounds.

At the beginning of the summer, the University of Chicago became the most selective college to become test-optional, citing its desire for fairness in the admissions process.  James Nondorf, the Dean of Admissions, explained the new policy:

“[It’s about] helping students and families of all backgrounds better understand and navigate this process and about bringing students with intellectual promise (no matter their background) to UChicago[.]”

Nondorf also said the college was looking to recruit more students from low-income families, The Washington Post reported.

As the cases of UChicago, Wesleyan, and many others illustrate, lots of great schools are now dropping the SAT/ACT requirement.  And this is terrific—at least in theory.

Does being test-optional benefit the applicant or the college?

Back in April, Inside Higher Ed reported that schools that adopt test-optional policies increase diversity, while maintaining graduation rates.  Later, when UChicago dropped the SAT/ACT requirement, a number of articles appeared, celebrating the decision. Institutions of higher education continue to suffer from a lack of diversity, and creating a more inclusive campus should be a top priority for every college.

Becoming test-optional, however, may ultimately benefit colleges as much as, if not more than, the students who apply to them.

It’s important not to forget that top colleges are competing for students with high SAT scores.  There are many factors that contribute to a college’s rank (whether in Forbes, U.S. News, or elsewhere): in addition to “reputation” (based on surveys of “academic peers”), retention rates, faculty resources, and a number of other criteria, SAT and ACT averages of matriculating first-years are part of what determine a college’s rank.

SAT scores matter when it comes to a school’s image and rank, and dropping the test requirement is bound to raise the test average, since applicants with low scores will probably not choose to submit them.  Schools may also be betting that not requiring standardized test scores will attract more applicants.  More applicants for the same number of spots means lower acceptance rates, which of course make a college look more competitive.

Does not sending test scores hurt applicants?

There’s a popular analogy for discussing what the “optional” in “test-optional” really means.  It goes like this: imagine someone—let’s call him Brian—is browsing profiles on a dating website where personal photos are optional.  Brian might take a chance and go on a date with someone whose bio is truly incredible, even if that person hasn’t chosen to upload a personal photo.  But in the case of anyone who seems less than saintly, Brian may very well wonder: why didn’t this person want to upload a picture? What is he or she trying to hide?

Clearly, Brian is a little superficial, but that’s what makes this comparison a good one.  Admissions folks tend to be a little “superficial” as well—by which I mean that even if they have reservations about standardized test results, they’re used to placing a lot of importance on them.  Try as they might to focus on the true qualities of an applicant, admissions officers at test-optional colleges may have a hard time not interpreting students’ decision not to submit their scores.

All other things being equal, a student who sends in impressive SAT scores will probably beat out someone who doesn’t.  Bowdoin College—one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country, which boasts the oldest test-optional policy—says it “allows applicants to decide for themselves whether or not their test results accurately reflect their academic ability and potential.”  This same language appears on other test-optional schools’ websites. By not submitting your scores, you are, according to the folks at Bowdoin, stating that your scores don’t reflect your ability and potential. In other words, you’re telling them your scores aren’t as good as the rest of your application.

Are you a “bad tester”?

I should say something here about “the bad test-taker.”  Many students with learning disabilities and other special needs require extra time on standardized tests.  Test anxiety is itself recognized as a psycho-physiological condition, and is acknowledged by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.  

There is also a culturally accepted notion of “bad testers,” however, which does not refer to students with learning disabilities, special needs, or diagnoses of social phobia.  These so-called “bad testers”—the students who excel easily in all things academic, get good grades (even on tests in class)—somehow choke faced with the Scantron test sheet only when it comes to the SAT.  These students may simply need to learn and practice the SAT.

I understand that even for students who do not have learning disabilities, special needs, or test anxiety, the SAT can be a stressful experience.  When I had to take the test, I got caught in a snow storm, and a tree fell across the road on my way to the exam (I swear this is a true story). I had to turn around and improvise an alternate route (this was before smartphones) along back roads and through snowdrifts to the testing facility.  I arrived approximately thirty seconds before the test started. All this to say that I understand how terrible the experience can be!

But motivated students can generally improve their SAT drastically, provided they take the time to learn and practice the test (just as they had to learn about photosynthesis, Beowulf, or the subjective mood in French).  Some students may need extra help, but the fact is that, with a bit of work, students can prepare for, and improve their SAT scores, just as they can study for, and do well on a test in one of their high school classes.  To be “a bad tester” is in many cases not a natural condition.

Even The College Board knows this.  It stopped claiming that the SAT was an “aptitude” test back in the early 1990s.  SAT originally stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test—it was supposed to test a student’s intellectual abilities, independent of any learned content, almost like an IQ test.  But the “A” in SAT was later changed to stand for “assessment,” and not “aptitude.” In other words, the test abandoned its assertion that it was testing students’ innate abilities (aptitude)—it simply “assessed” them… on how well they prepared for the SAT.  Today, SAT literally stands for nothing. It’s no longer an acronym, but rather a brand, a bit like KFC (I’m not the first to make the comparison), which, because of the genetically modified meat they serve, can no longer legally claim to serve Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The bottom line

Applying to a test-optional school will often not increase a student’s chances of admission.  

Students should not view test-optional colleges as loopholes in the application process.  It goes without saying that anyone who is not a very motivated student doesn’t have much of a shot at getting into UChicago, Bowdoin, Pitzer, Wesleyan, or any of the other highly selective colleges that no longer require SAT or ACT scores.  Students who are attracted to test-optional colleges because applying seems like less work will not enjoy the challenging courses at UChicago anyway (NB: many test-optional schools still require that students submit SAT or ACT scores before matriculating for “research purposes”—applicants still have to take the test!).

Until U.S. universities decide definitively to abolish the standardized test requirement, students have to embrace studying for the test (maybe think of it as a rite of passage).  They will survive it—hopefully even in a blizzard.