Currently, an ocean of misinformation swirls around test-optional colleges. To clarify that misinformation, I recently wrote an article for Custom Writings on test-optional colleges or colleges that no longer require students to submit SAT and ACT scores. In this post, I’d like to pick up where I left off.
Context: What Test-Optional Colleges and the 1950’s Tobacco Industry Have in Common
In the wake of the pandemic, over 1700 schools have become test-optional colleges. Consequently, test-optional has become a viral sensation. Many students now are resting easy, no longer worrying about even taking standardized tests because their dream schools no longer require them. In a recent report from the common application, only 43 percent of applicants reported test scores, a big drop from last year’s 77 percent.
But just because a practice is popular, doesn’t mean it’s productive.
For example, in the late 1950s, half of the industrialized world smoked. The practice was socially acceptable, glamorized by the media, and often recommended by doctors as a remedy for throat irritation. Unsurprisingly, only cigarette companies benefited from the mainstreamed misinformation of cigarette smoking, not the consumers who smoked them.
Fortunately, test-optional colleges aren’t corroding the lungs of their students. Tragically though, they are misleading students, and in some ways, even scamming them.
Bob Schafer: The Most Ardent Advocate for Test-Optional Colleges
As with any popular movement, test-optional colleges are not without their advocates. As it stands, many celebrate the growing popularity of test-optional colleges.
The most ardent and quoted among these advocates is Bob Schafer, the lead executive of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. Anytime a college moves to test-optional admissions, it’s customary for said college to quote Schaffer in their press release, usually this quote:
“Test-optional and test-blind/score-free policies have become the ‘new normal’ in undergraduate admission. Higher education leaders recognize that removing ACT/SAT requirements promotes both academic excellence and equity.”
– Bob Schafer, Interim Director of Fair Test
True to Fair Test’s mission, Schafer wants college admissions to be more open and accessible. By open and accessible, he means more accessible to lower-income and first-generation college students. He believes – and shouts from the housetops at conferences, live-streams, and symposiums – that test-optional is the way to level the playing field for all students.
Critics of Test-Optional
However, not everyone shares Schafer’s excitement about test-optional colleges. For example, Ivy Coach’s Brian Taylor had this to say about the test-optional policies:
“We don’t believe test-optional policies are worth the paper they’re written on,” “If one kid has great test scores and one kid has no test scores, all else being equal, the kid with great test scores will win every time over the kid with no test scores. As long as the school allows the submission of the scores, then they’re not telling it like it is. They’re not really test-optional.”
So, Shafer and the test-optional movement is not without their critics. And if you couldn’t tell by the title of this article, I happen to be one of those critics.
You see, like Schafer, I support more open and accessible college admissions.
Unlike Schafer, I openly admit that test-optional policies benefit the colleges that market them FAR more than said policies help students, if at all.
And I’m not alone.
Many admissions experts and a robust body of peer-reviewed research criticize test-optional. To clarify though, admissions gurus and high ed researchers aren’t advocating for more standardized tests (far from it). Instead, they primarily claim that test-optional colleges didn’t adopt test-optional policies to help students as much as they did to help themselves.
#1 Test-Optional Enhances the College’s Perceived Selectivity
Colleges are businesses. As a business, colleges want to increase profits and improve the reputation of their brand. And there’s nothing better for a business than scarcity.
Let’s use the scarcity of diamonds as an illustration. Diamonds are only found in 35 of the world’s 195 countries. Additionally, the average price of a 1-carat diamond ranges between $1,220 and $5,800 USD. Diamonds command the enormous prices they do because they’re rare.
Now, imagine if diamonds weren’t a scarce resource. What if diamonds could be found in every kind of soil and in every country: you name it, your backyard, your niece’s playground, or your least favorite hiking trail. The value and demand for diamonds would drastically decrease. As it turns out, scarcity often determines if diamonds become the gems adorning your jewelry or the gravel littering your driveway.
Thus, if a product is in demand, and that product becomes scarcer its value increases. This is how test-optional helps universities.
According to a recent peer-reviewed study, colleges with “SAT optional policies briefly [saw an] increase [in] applications.”
So, with more students applying, colleges that become test-optional find themselves with more applicants to choose from. To put it in business terms, as a college’s demand increases, so does its value.
Becky Sabky, a former admission’s officer at Dartmouth, put it this way:
“The more applications we receive, the lower our admission rate. The lower our admissions rate, the more elite we appeared.”
– Becky Sabky, Valedictorians at the Gate
For competitive universities, low admissions rates equate to more prestige and higher tuition. Colleges lower their admissions rate by rejecting more students. The more who apply, the more they reject.
Yes, you read that right.
The more students a college rejects, the better the college looks to the public. So, if a prestigious college gets more applicants to reject by becoming a test-optional college, it becomes a profitable business move to do so. However, there’s also a more direct reason colleges become test-optional colleges. It makes them more money.
#2 Test Optional Makes Colleges More Money
Every time a student applies to college, they must usually pay an application fee. The average application fee rests around $43.00 USD. However, for elite schools, especially the Ivy Leagues, the application fees cost more (around $75.00).
As we’ve discussed, when a college becomes test-optional, its number of applicants briefly spikes. This increase in applying students also increases a college’s potential revenue in application fees… and often by a lot.
Sabky, in her book Valedictorians at the Gate, wrote that, as a Dartmouth Admission’s officer:
“We wanted their application fees…we wanted their applications for their overall numbers.”
Consequently, it’s a good business sense for a school to become a test-optional college. Like Sabky wrote, elite schools want your application fees. And becoming a test-optional college ensures they get more of them.
And the numbers don’t lie. As shown in the image above, test-optional made the Ivy League millions of dollars. Half of the Ivy League schools made over $1 Million USD in potential application revenue. But all of them made hundreds of thousands more than they made the previous year after, you guessed, they went test-optional.
In their press announcements, colleges claim test-optional is designed to help underprivileged students. Fair enough. And while the peer-reviewed research I’ve seen shows that it usually doesn’t, we can agree the policy was designed with some noble intentions.
After all, numerous studies show that race and family income remain the primary indicator of a student’s ACT or SAT scores. Primarily, the policy exists to help students whose context prevented them from taking standardized tests. This includes the following:
- Have a socioeconomic context that prevents them from taking or studying for the ACT or SAT
- Couldn’t take the ACT or SAT due to the Pandemic
Yet, colleges just emphasize their decision to change into a test-optional college. They don’t emphasize who the policy is for. Of course, this is intentional.
By not emphasizing that test-optional is designed to help underprivileged students, most students and parents assume they can reap the benefits of test-optional regardless of their context.
Tragically, colleges won’t change their message.
If they do, fewer students will apply, and the institution’s potential admissions profits and competitive rankings are at risk.
Jonathan Burdick, Cornell’s vice provost for enrollment, confirms this. In an interview published in an article in the New York Times, Burdick said the following:
“We saw people that thought… ‘Oh, if they’re not looking at a test score, maybe I’ve actually got a chance.’”
-Jonathan Burdick, Vice Provost for Enrollment at Cornell University
In other words, Burdick and other executives of Cornell chose test optional with a self-serving agenda. Thus, Cornell joined the test-optional colleges’ ranks with application numbers and profit in mind, not to help students from less-privileged backgrounds.
And Cornell isn’t alone, as every Ivy League has opted to become a test-optional college.
#3 Colleges Use Test-Optional to Appear More Inclusive
Colleges wrap the messages of their test-optional marketing with bright, inclusion-colored ribbons. And like a ribbon, the equity colleges allegedly gain from test-optional policies is just that, a thin, empty decoration. Recently, a peer-reviewed study by Matt Saboe and Sabrina Terrizzi made the following conclusions on test-optional colleges:
- SAT optional policies have no effect on racial and socioeconomic diversity.
- SAT optional policies do not influence the gender ratio of institutions.
- SAT optional policies have no effect on the quality of the student population.
- SAT optional policies briefly increase applications, but the effect is not sustained over time.
Most admission officers I know aren’t surprised by this data. One of the more vocal admissions experts against test-optional admissions is Dr. Aviva Leggatt. Dr. Leggatt is a former Ivy League admissions officer and CEO of a private college admissions consulting firm. In a recent article she wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Dr. Leggatt wrote a measured but scathing criticism on how universities misrepresent test-optional policies.
Legatt called the practice “self-serving,” stating “‘Test-optional’ will always mean ‘test-preferred,’ despite universities trying to score cheap equity points.”
As you can see, Legatt doesn’t hold any punches (for which I greatly respect her for). As a college prep coach, I found Legatt’s honesty refreshing. It reminds me of these words written by education reform analyst and the Atlantic writer James S. Murphy when he wrote, regarding the self-aggrandizing nature of elite colleges, that “it’s tempting to pour a bucket of cold water on the self-congratulatory fireworks [colleges are] lighting for themselves.”
“‘Test-optional’ will always mean ‘test-preferred,’ despite universities trying to score cheap equity points.”
Like I said, Legatt went straight for the throat, and for good reason.
Make no mistake, elite colleges care far more about their brand than they do underserved students. These esteemed universities allow the majority to be misled because it benefits them, especially if it makes them look more inclusive.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that universities are evil, and I don’t think Legatt is either. The reality is that colleges have more in common with businesses than they do academic nonprofit associations. Like a business, they have a product to push and a reputation to uphold. Thus, their primary concern is selling that product and boosting their credibility. Becoming test-optional is a lucrative and simple way to do that.
If colleges wanted to remove test scores from the equation, colleges would become test blind. As we described in our last article, in test-blind admissions, students often aren’t allowed to submit their test scores. Thus, parents and students can rest easy knowing that test scores truly don’t factor into their application with test-blind admissions. But, if a college claims its test-optional, especially a competitive school, assume it’s “test-preferred.”
Who Should Apply Test-Optional?
To be clear, I’ve criticized the way competitive colleges unethically use test-optional, not the policy itself. The policy itself is well-meaning. And, in some cases, using the policy may benefit applying students. However, test-optional was meant to benefit a certain kind of student.
In other words, test-optional isn’t for everyone. Regarding just who test-optional was meant for, Matthew Larriva, a published test prep expert, and data scientist wrote this:
“Schools recognize how arduous it is for a student who, say, has to work after school to help his family, to allocate time and resources to SAT prep. These are the students for whom the SAT and ACT tests are truly optional.”
Test-Optional for Low-Income Students
So, lower-income families, who can’t afford tutoring or supplementary education programs to do well on the ACT and SAT, might benefit from the policy. To illustrate, Cornell’s initial wording of their test-optional announcement specified that the policy was designed to help students suffering from “hardship or losses.” Though Cornell has removed that phrasing from their website, for reasons we’ve already discussed, it helps us understand who the policy was designed to help, and who it wasn’t.
With that said, students from low-income households shouldn’t neglect the ACT or SAT. Scoring well on the tests can only benefit you and make you a more competitive candidate.
In other words, taking the test can only help you. And there are a ton of free resources on the ACT and College Board websites to help you get started. Additionally, check out our resource page for inexpensive materials students can use to prepare for the ACT/SAT.
Test-Optional for Middle-Income Students
For middle-income or wealthier students, your chances of benefiting from test-optional admissions become markedly slimmer. The higher your family’s income, the better you’re expected to perform on the ACT or SAT.
But what does “middle income” even mean? Again, Larriva put it concisely but effectively: “if you took piano lessons throughout your youth, it will be hard to suggest you do not have the resources to prepare for the SAT/ACT.”
Consequently, middle-income students should prioritize taking the ACT or SAT. They can do that in the following ways:
- Take advantage of ACT/SAT classes at their school
- Study for the ACT/SAT themselves using official ACT Resources
- Hire an ACT or SAT Tutor
Test-Optional for High-Income Students
Unsurprisingly, students from higher-income families should plan on taking the ACT or SAT. If not, they are at a distinct disadvantage. Competitive colleges expect students from higher-income households to use their family’s resources to improve their test scores.
Regardless of your income, test-optional applicants should keep this in mind. By not submitting your test scores, colleges will scrutinize other dimensions of your application.
Remember This if You Apply to a Test-Optional College
Without your test scores, colleges will evaluate the rest of your application with more intensity. In an article I wrote for CustomWriting.com, I outlined 6 core competencies top college applicants have in common. Unsurprisingly, competitive test scores are one of those competencies.
So, when a student doesn’t submit test scores, a college’s admissions team focuses on the remaining 5 competencies.
- High GPA: Great Grades
- High Course Rigor: Challenging Classes
- Well Written College Admission Essays: Authentic Essays
- Memorable Recommendation Letters: Letters that Vouch for Your Character
- Strategic Application Narrative: The Story Your Application Tells
As you can see, most students can and should leverage these competencies in their favor. While test scores aren’t always controllable, these competencies are. Writing impactful college essays, befriending teachers and mentors who will write great rec letters for you, taking tougher classes when able, and earning great grades are within a student’s control.
Concluding Test-Optional Admissions
In summary, do not allow a college’s empty promises of not requiring test scores to trick you. You’ve worked too hard to fall for that trap. So, prioritize your test scores as a vital element in your application. When you make your test scores a priority, you’ll earn a competitive edge over students who haven’t. By doing so, you’ll get into the schools you want and have a higher chance of earning scholarships.
Get Into Your Dream School
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