It’s no secret that a new wave of test-optional colleges has swept the college admissions process for 2020, 2021 and 2022 seniors, and it could be a positive development.
Before 2020, however, this was much more of a rare occurrence, and colleges that implemented this policy would have been in the minority. In 2018, for example, Wake Forest University went test-optional, explaining that intelligence is more than a test score and “requires a deeper dive” into “life experience, aspiration, work ethic, engagement, and all of what makes you who you are.” In short, they wanted a more expansive and holistic evaluation of their applicants instead of focusing on just a number.
Similarly, the University of Chicago followed suit in 2018. They wanted to create a more equitable admissions process and allow students who may not have the opportunity to take or prepare for a test a fair chance to apply. This was before the COVID-19 pandemic as well, and thus these decisions from these universities were polarizing, instigating debate and criticism from applicants as well as other institutions and schools.
When the pandemic hit, everything changed, including the admissions process. Students could no longer guarantee they could access a testing site, and availability for the SAT and ACT decreased dramatically. Colleges, including the highly selective like Columbia University and Dartmouth College, had no choice but to enforce a test-optional policy. Now, for the 2021-2022 application process, 75% of American four-year colleges are test-optional, according to Fair Test. For the class of 2023 seniors, it is recommended that they take the SAT or ACT, but score submission will depend on a number of personal factors, as many universities will remain test-optional.
But what are the positive impacts of the widespread test-optional development? In short, diversity and equity are the primary pros. Studies have shown that test score is often tied to income and subsequent access to preparation and support. Historically, students of color and students with lower family incomes have been at a dramatic disadvantage when it comes to college admissions and thus have been underrepresented in student bodies. With the switch to test-optional becoming a progressively popular move, a larger pool of students will have the opportunity to demonstrate their qualifications despite an economic disadvantage, which no one can argue is a negative development. In addition, students who simply cannot test as well but have high grades, strong extracurriculars, and impressive recommendations have the chance to offer their resume without the potentially damaging score. While there are benefits to sending in a test, the option to put more focus on the rest of your application opens doors for many more applicants. Consequently, colleges should keep this unexpected policy in place in years to come after all. These universities that stress inclusion and well-roundedness should not promote structural and economic advantages.
However, NPR noted the other potential motives for the switch to test-optional. Test-optional policies artificially inflate the average test scores and acceptance rates of the school with wider applicant pools that do not possess the lower scores they normally would. Also, some schools have yet to see a diversity improvement; although, it is still probably too early to tell, as dramatic institutional change takes time. Still, the positive goals of the test-optional policies outweigh these drawbacks.
In order to foster the world’s movement to a more diverse and equitable environment, colleges and universities need to do their part. While COVID-19 brought on this change forcefully and unexpectedly, the opportunity to allow usually underrepresented students is a concept that hundreds of schools have already grasped, although it is too soon to tell how long this change will last. Already, minority and first-generation students have utilized this opportunity, as SAT and ACT submissions dropped dramatically last year. Universities cannot promote their goals of maintaining a diverse student body without adjusting policies to fit all students.