Seeking Truths About Test-Optional Admissions?
Test-optional admissions grew in practice at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are likely to be with us for years to come at many schools. I touch on test-optional admissions in my new book, The Good College. But I would like offer added thoughts for high school juniors and parents who are about to prepare for the next college admissions cycle.
Standardized test scores are one of several data points in college admissions, even at test-optional schools
Admissions officers will tell you that the admissions process is holistic, that they look at several factors, the most important being the rigor and grades on a high school transcript. However, if you can check out the most current Common Data Set, when available, for any school, you will get to a Table C-7 where you will see 19 different data points. Test scores are one of them and so are grades.
Six of the 19 data points cover academics, mainly from the transcript, but also admissions essays and letters of recommendation. The remaining data points cover non-academic factors. Most appear on either the application for admission or the Common Application. Two, an interview and expressions of interest, do not.
Why do these data points matter?
Different schools place different levels of importance on different data points. More relevant, two schools that might appear the same place different importance on different data points.
I will take a look at two schools that I have visited to elaborate.
Lafayette College (PA) is a test-optional liberal arts college with 2,500 undergrads and no graduate students. It also offers engineering. Here’s how Lafayette ranked different data points:
- Very Important: Rigor, Academic GPA
- Important: Test Scores, Class Rank, Essay, Recommendations, Interview, Extracurricular Activities, Talent/Ability, Character/Personal Qualities
- Considered: First Generation, Alumni/ae Relation, Geographical Residence, Racial/Ethnic Status, Volunteer Work, Work Experience, Level of applicant’s interest
- Not Considered: State residency, Religious affiliation/commitment
You also need to consider the percentage of students who submitted test scores. Less than 30 percent of the Lafayette Class of 2025 submitted SAT scores. The percentage that submitted an ACT was less than 20 percent. Lafayette does not use the test scores for academic advising after a student is admitted. Low test scores, or no scores, should not lead the school to place a freshman into a remedial course.
It seems reasonable to believe that an excellent student who comes from a high school that is familiar to Lafayette’s admissions office, who expresses interest enough to visit campus, make a strong impression in an interview and write compelling essays can be admitted to Lafayette without submitting scores. This is especially true for those who apply Early Decision (ED), a very serious expression of interest. Fifty-three percent of prospective Leopards who applied ED were accepted. They made up 42 percent of the freshman class.
Union College (NY) is also a test optional liberal arts college, and like Lafayette, also offers engineering. It has about 400 fewer undergraduates, but the college has a campus vibe that is similar to Lafayette’s.
- Very Important: Rigor, Class Rank, Academic GPA
- Important: Test Scores, Essay, Recommendations, Interview, Extracurricular Activities, Talent/Ability, Character/Personal Qualities, Volunteer Work, Work Experience,
- Considered: Interview, First Generation, Alumni/ae Relation, Geographical Residence, Racial/Ethnic Status, Volunteer Work, Work Experience, State Residency, Level of applicant’s interest
- Not Considered: Religious affiliation/commitment
Less than 40 percent of the Union Class of 2025 submitted SAT scores, and less than 20 percent submitted ACTs. Like Lafayette, Union does not use the scores for academic advising. It did help to apply ED to Union. Sixty-one percent of prospective Dutchmen and Dutchwomen who applied ED were accepted. But they represented less than a third of the incoming Class of 2025.
The major differences between Lafayette and Union, from the admissions perspective, aside from a smaller freshman class (565 vs. 782), is that the interview appears to be less important, but volunteer and work experience are more important when they evaluate a candidate.
However, if you were looking for an ED school, and had strong volunteer or work experience, Union was more likely to offer admission to those who did not submit scores. But Union might have been the less attractive school for someone who wanted to avoid excessive student loan debt. Lafayette grads in 2021 who borrowed owed, on average, just under $28,000. Union grads who borrowed just over $35,000.
What happens when you cross-shop between different types of schools?
I always hope that students who like schools such as Lafayette and Union will have a list of similar schools, but that rarely happens. These schools are considered versus private research universities as well as very large state schools. The different schools will also place different values on the different data points. If you’re from Florida, for example, their state schools will care more about your test scores than Lafayette or Union. In those cases you want to be comfortably at the mid point or better when you submit scores to feel more confident about your chances for admission.
Lehigh, as one example, places more importance on Interest than either Lafayette or Union. The university also places more importance on volunteer work than Lafayette. Since these schools are fairly close by, you should try to visit both. It’s possible that might find that you landed at Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton Airport determined that one was your school, only to go home preferring the other.
To submit or not submit scores, has been the test-optional question
I happen to choose two similar schools where the majority of applicants did not submit scores, although both attract an academically strong student. High scores might help for merit aid at Lafayette; they use scores, when submitted, as a criteria for the largest awards. Just under a fifth of their Class of 2025 received a merit award that averaged nearly $21,000/year.
Union follows the same practice for merit scholarships as Lafayette. However, nearly a third of their Class of 2025 received merit awards that averaged just over $20,000/year. The person who applied to both schools with high scores would have probably had a better shot at merit aid at Union, because Union is a smaller school that awarded merit aid to more freshmen than Lafayette.
What is the point of all of these data points?
It really helps to understand what a college is looking for when they have test optional admissions, a student’s strengths and weaknesses going into the admissions process and what the student and their family need from a school. I have advised students long enough to learn that students have academic and social/extracurricular needs as well as financial need.
Many schools made the decision to go test optional not only to consider the testing situations caused by the pandemic, but also because they found that the scores had little value when it came to retention and college grades. Schools that had been test optional before the pandemic might have found that the scores had little predictive value when it came to graduation rates. Such schools might be more open to looking at the non-academic data points as well as the essays and recommendations, because they have had more experience with test-optional admissions.
Here’s two suggestions to ease your mind about test-optional admissions.
In addition to checking out the data points on a Common Data Set, ask the admissions office how long the school has had test optional admissions. Then ask point-blank if their office had found that those who scored at the midpoint of higher, had a better chance of academic success than those who submitted low scores or no scores at all. If they answer yes, and the scores are below average, don’t bother applying for admission.
Here’s a second suggestion for academically strong students: if you have the highest scores on AP or IB exams taken during the sophomore or junior year, submit them in place of the ACT or SAT, if you cannot take those tests. An applicant who has earned 5s on a diverse pair or set of AP exams will be taken more seriously in selective admissions than someone who submits no scores at all.
While my two examples, Lafayette and Union were similar schools, each school placed more importance on a few things than they did on others. High scores might have been helpful for someone who needed a merit award to help cover educational costs. The scores were probably less important for a family that could cover those costs on their own.
What if you have concerns about college costs?
If your family is not likely to qualify for need-based aid, and you cannot cover full costs for a private college, you need to find schools where the scores qualify for a merit award, or you need to consider a less expensive public school where the scores are closer to the midpoint of a class to feel more confident about admissions. Or you need to consider schools where all students are considered for merit awards without reviewing test scores.
Test-optional admissions might have made it easier for more students to decide to apply to more selective colleges. They might have made admissions officers think deeper in terms of objectives that they wanted to achieve in crafting a class, diversity being one of them. However, they also made it easier for students and parents to wonder if their scores were “good enough” after they had gone through some headaches to take a test.
Test-optional admissions also meant that admissions offices would need to place more importance on other data points when there were no ACT or SAT scores in the file. At the same time, most were not prepared to welcome a significantly larger freshman class, especially after going through the heights of a pandemic. So, in many cases when significantly more students applied for admission, significantly more were denied. This trend is unlikely to stop in the near future,. So, students and parents should do more research and take more time to find their best fit schools where they have more reasonable chances to be admitted.
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