“Test Optional”: Do the SAT and ACT Still Matter?

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By Jim Treadway

Since 53 colleges have gone “test-optional” during the quarantine, parents are asking if (and students are insisting!) the tests no longer matter.

This post will give the low-down on what “test optional” really means – the forces behind it that aren’t being mentioned in media reporting on the SAT and ACT – and which type of student (probably you) the SAT and ACT will matter more than ever to.

First:  What is the Real Story Behind “Test-Optional”?

A hugely under-reported aspect to a school going “test optional” is that it raises the number of applications to the school. The school makes  headlines, and more students start to hope they might be accepted.

When more apply but the same number of students get in, the school’s acceptance rate drops, boosting its prestige.

There is also a LOT of money to be made from declined applications. In 2015-16, UCLA, which charged $70 per application fee that year, earned $5.4 million in revenue from declined applications. UC Berkeley earned $4.6 million; Boston University $3 million; and Columbia University $2.9 million, to give more examples.

Finally, “test optional” is more about giving schools options than it is about giving students options. It allows colleges to cherry-pick students like athletes, minorities, and students connected to major donors who might not otherwise have the test scores they would need to get accepted. 

“Test Optional” raises the number of applications a school receives. In 2015-16, UCLA, which charged $70 per application fee, earned $5.4 million in revenue from declined applications.

“Test optional” probably does NOT apply to standard students who don’t fit into those categories, however. It makes their SAT or ACT more important, because they are getting compared against each other for remaining admissions spots.

Test results get factored into the school’s average SAT/ACT score, which influences college rankings, so schools will want applicants with high scores.

Second:  Will the SAT and ACT Matter?

If schools did not want to see your SATs and ACTs, they would ask you NOT to submit them – something only one school has ever done, Sarah Lawrence, and it has since reversed the policy.

Colleges want to see your SATs and ACTs so they can compare kids from different school districts – and because a school’s average SAT/ACT affects its place in college rankings.

So long as the the SAT and ACT are administered in actual high schools (by the June 13 or July 18 ACTs, for example, or the August SAT), the tests will matter – and arguably more than ever (explained below).

The SAT and ACT will then roll out their tests monthly between then and November 1, the last date by which students can submit scores for early admissions.

However, if students take the tests at home next Fall because the quarantine hasn’t yet lifted, then cheating may be so widespread (texting friends mid-test, for example) that the tests are deemed irrelevant

Assuming the quarantine has lifted enough that kids can take the test in high schools, though, the SAT and ACT will be ESPECIALLY important. 

Here’s why: students have fewer chances to distinguish themselves now. Since the quarantine, (1) AP exams are being taken at home, raising questions about their validity; (2) SAT Subject Tests have been cancelled through August at the least; (3) Spring extracurriculars have been cancelled; (4) coursework at many schools has gone Pass/Fail; and (5) summer camps, jobs, and trips are getting cancelled.

All of this means this year’s Juniors have fewer chances to distinguish themselves to colleges, both academically and through meaningful experiences that can be written about in essays.

All of this means this year’s Juniors have fewer chances than ever to distinguish themselves to colleges, both academically and through meaningful experiences that can be written about in essays.

If that is the case, a strong SAT or ACT will be an especially bright and necessary feather to put in student’s cap come application time next Fall.

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