All the Answers to Your Test-Optional Questions

It took COVID-19 only a month to do what twenty years of research could not do: Start the landslide of colleges and universities going test-optional.

I’ve written so much about the topic since my former institution went test-optional in 2011 that I won’t bother to rehash in detail all the reasons why test-optional is a good choice.  But a quick summary is in order:

  • Standardized tests are not helpful in predicting freshman grades once you’ve looked at all the other information in the application folder
  • There are massive issues concerning equity (because the people with the most social, economic, and political capital are the ones who a) benefit from the tests and b) ensure the tests remain important)
  • The time spent explicitly preparing for the tests takes away time from actual academic instruction
  • Add to that the racist history of standardized tests, (which, if it isn’t still there overtly, you can see if you look hard enough), and you’ll end up wondering how we ended up using them in the first place.

If you want to read more about tests, you can sift through this blog, or order some books. There’s lots to choose from, in both instances.

But that’s not what this post is about.  This post is about your test-optional questions.  And there seem to be a lot of them.  The good news is that there are quick, easy, and memorable answers to all of them.

Some background: ACT and College Board have already each canceled one administration of their tests, and, unless something dramatic happens, will likely cancel more. This means many students won’t even be able to take a test once, let alone two or three times, so it would clearly be unfair of colleges to penalize students with requirements they’re unable to fulfill. Many of the brand-name colleges in America love to humble brag about high test score averages in the freshman class, and those numbers are a big part of their identity; but for these old, highly resourced, top-of-mind names, their life blood is low admit rates. If applications suddenly drop by 15% or 25%, for instance, the admit rate is going to rise, so something’s gotta give. And for now, at least, it’s the SAT or ACT.

This was already a big year for colleges going test-optional. Indiana University, for instance. Every public university in Oregon, for instance. And too many others to list all decided to go test-optional based on research and equity issues, well before COVID-19 became popular.

Now, others are jumping in: Williams, Amherst, Case Western Reserve, Davidson, and–the whole University of California system. Many of these are for a limited, fixed period of time, but I believe the old WW I song, “How you gonna keep ’em down on the farm” applies. Once students have seen test-optional, how are you going to bring the tests back?

This leads to lots of questions from students, parents, high school counselors, independent counselors, and sometimes, even colleges new to test-optional: How is this going to work? I’ve watched a few webinars this week, and watched the questions scroll on the screen, and I’ve noticed some interesting takes on test-optional.  Some of the macro themes included:

  • How will admissions offices make decisions about two students if one has tests and one doesn’t?
  • Without tests, what becomes the most important things in the file after the high school transcript?  Essays? Recommendations? Extra-curriculars?
  • If I have scores but they aren’t as high as I’d like, should I apply test-optional?  Will my chances be better? Can I even apply test-optional if I have scores?
  • Will colleges really be test-optional, or do they just want to keep application numbers up? Will the percentage of students applying test-optional be the same as the percentage admitted without tests?
  • How will this affect ED/EA applications?  Can  you apply test-optional in those rounds?  And if you do, do you even stand a chance?

All these questions, and many more, have two answers, and they’re the same two answers for each question: I don’t know, and it depends. That’s it.  The simple reason is that every college does things differently.  Every university evaluates students in ways only it understands.  But there’s even more to this.

Because when you’re trying to deconstruct the secret formula for admission to any college, you’re playing a fool’s game.  Those of us who know how admissions really works understand that at the vast majority of colleges and universities, there is no secret: If you’re good enough, you’re in; and your high school counselor can probably tell you if you’re good enough to get in. 

At the rest–those 50 big name institutions–even if you’re good enough, you probably won’t get it.  That’s how it was in 2019.  That’s how it was for the class just admitted, entering in Fall, 2020.

And that’s how it will be for the entering class of 2021.  With or without tests.  It’s unfair that test-optional is making this even more impossible to decode.  Then again, it’s unfair that it’s been that way for 20 years.

I know parents and students don’t like to hear this.  People want certainty.  They want to key to unlock the door.  They want an answer. You won’t find that in selective college admissions.  There may be clues, but there is never certainty.  Probably no one applying for Fall 2021 will ever know if they got denied or admitted because they had scores or because they didn’t.

Is this clear? Because I’ve tried to make it clear.

What’s interesting to me is how so many parents who are used to being in command of things end up feeling when something as uncertain as college admissions crosses their path.  I’d like to remind them to imagine their child was just as smart and interesting and talented, but had no parents with college degrees, no experienced college counselor, no expensive SAT prep classes, no luxury of choosing the best college without regard to cost, no Ph. D. editor reviewing essays, no quasi-professional athletics camps to gain an edge.  Think how helpless you’d feel then.

And realize, that just this once, your cluelessness is perhaps the best lesson in empathy you can learn.

3 thoughts on “All the Answers to Your Test-Optional Questions

  1. Jon,  Nicely done.  I’m circulating this to my UC co-conspirators.

    I was just thinking that folks want a level of certainty in admissions that doesn’t at all exist in hiring by private companies (except in the era when Duke Power and its ilk used tests to disqualify black applicants), which arguably is a much more impactful process.   

    Stay safe and well,


    From: Jon Boeckenstedt’s Admissions Weblog Reply-To: Jon Boeckenstedt’s Admissions Weblog Date: Wednesday, April 8, 2020 at 8:15 AM To: Subject: [New post] All the Answers to Your Test-Optional Questions

    Jon Boeckenstedt posted: “It took COVID-19 only a month to do what twenty years of research could not do: Start the landslide of colleges and universities going test-optional. I’ve written so much about the topic since my former institution went test-optional in 2011 that I won’t”


  2. Thank you for writing this, Jon. And for all the work you’ve done and are doing on the test optional front.

    I’m grateful.


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