SAT Optional. How it Effects You.


By Simon Cordes, Assistant Reporter

Starting in 2018, the highly competitive University of Chicago announced its Empower Initiative: a test-optional admissions process. Not long after, and with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, many other top universities followed suit. Now, in 2023, it is hard to find an elite university that DOES require standardized test scores for all applicants.

It may be a surprise to some that this is not a new idea. Bowdoin, a top-tier liberal arts college in Maine, went test-optional in 1969, and has stayed this way ever since. At a time when many schools were first adopting standardized tests, Bowdoin argued that these tests did little to represent a student’s chances of doing well in college.

But why would so many prestigious colleges simply discard a previously believed “strong indicator” of an applicant’s intellectual capabilities?

Simply put, the answer is diversity. Generally, students from low socio-economic backgrounds and historically discriminated races tend to score lower on standardized tests. So, in an effort to provide higher education to students regardless of their socio-economic background or race, schools simply ditched mandatory standardized tests. Laurie Koehler, head of Admissions at George Washington University, a school that recently went test-optional, had this to say: “The test-optional policy should strengthen and diversify an already outstanding applicant pool and will broaden access for those high-achieving students who have historically been underrepresented at selective colleges and universities, including students of color, first-generation students and students from low-income households.”

Those in favor of test-optional policies argue that this does not mean schools are simply taking less-qualified applicants, but rather, schools are looking at students more holistically, focusing on extra-curriculars, grades, essays, etc. Others contend that standardized tests don’t accurately capture a student’s intellectual capabilities. Some students may be very smart, but suffer from test anxiety, and others do not have the resources to pay for assistance with standardized tests. In a study conducted by Lani Guinier that tracked three classes at Harvard University, it was found that the most successful Harvard alumnae scored lower relative to their peers on the SAT, and generally came from blue-collar families. This suggests that there may be other factors at play, not necessarily test scores, that determine one’s success later in life.

Those not in favor of test optional policies argue that in taking away mandatory test scores, especially in such a competitive college application environment, schools lose a much-needed indicator of an applicant’s intellectual capabilities. Holding this viewpoint, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recently announced it would reinstate the SAT/ACT requirement, one that had been dropped during the COVID-19 pandemic. In an article released by the MIT News, Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions and Student Financial Services, said that “Our research has shown that, in most cases, we cannot reliably predict students will do well at MIT unless we consider standardized test results alongside grades, coursework, and other factors.”

Some say that in going test-optional, social and economic diversity and equity may not even be improved after all. In “Why ‘Test-optional’ Admissions are not a Game-changer for Equity After All”, Awilda Rodriguez and Sayil Camacho say that evidence shows there is no correlation showing “whether going test-optional increases the representation of marginalized students at selective college campuses.” This could be for a number of reasons. If test-scores are no longer required, other factors like schedule strength are examined more closely. Coincidentally, Advanced Placement (AP) and IB classes are more readily available in wealthier and less diverse schools. Moreover, students from higher-income families (which tend to be white), are also able to participate in more extracurriculars due to their financial situations.

In the end, regardless of why schools are going test-optional, the reality of the situation is that they are. So what effect will this have on admissions?

Generally speaking, selective universities’ standardized test averages spiked. These schools lost the bottom portion of their SAT and ACT data, as students who represented this portion simply did not submit their scores. If students want to submit their scores in the future, they will have to meet the new, significantly higher averages for these schools.

In addition, most top-tier universities that decided to go test optional during the COVID-19 pandemic also experienced a spike in applications, which naturally led to lower acceptance rates. As schools lifted their SAT and ACT requirements, students who might have previously been excluded due to lower test scores were suddenly able to join the ranks of applicants and were just as qualified as their neighbors. In the future, these top-tier universities will be more challenging but may be a bright new reality for students previously excluded because of lower SAT or ACT scores. What an exciting time for college admissions!