Many United States colleges switch to test optional

November 22, 2022

In the past, high schoolers began the first step of the college admissions process during their junior and senior years: the college entrance examinations. Typically studying for months ahead of time, students would sit for the SAT or ACT, hoping to achieve a score to impress colleges.

However, this is not necessarily the case anymore. Starting with students entering college in the fall of 2021, many colleges chose not to require entrance exams. The reasoning behind this change was in part due to the cancellation of most entrance exams in the spring of 2020 in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Over two years later, many colleges choose to keep the submission of exams optional. As test centers have now reopened, COVID-19 no longer stands as a reason for colleges being test-optional. Thus, the question in the air stands: “Why are so many colleges still test-optional?”

A direct effect of colleges going test-optional— and, most likely, one of the major deciding factors for colleges choosing to stay test-optional— is the drastic increase in the number of applicants. For example, Harvard University saw a record number of applicants for the class of 2025. 57,435 students applied— a 25% increase from the 43,330 applicants the previous year. As for the class of 2026, over 61,200 applied— another 7% increase from the class of 2025.

When colleges go test-optional, students who would not have applied because they did not have the target test score can apply without submitting a score. As a result, more applications flood into top colleges. 

Although the colleges receive more applicants, they still take in the same amount of students. Thus, as colleges go test-optional, their acceptance rates tend to drop.

Colleges have also chosen to stay test-optional due to recent criticism of the entrance exams. This criticism circulated for years prior to the pandemic causing some schools to begin going test-optional. 

The biggest critique of standardized entrance exams is that, although their name may say so, standardized entrance exams do not give a standard representation of all students. Some students simply are just not good test takers. 

Emily Boyle (‘23) said, “I don’t think my scores accurately reflect my knowledge.”

Entrance exams have also been proven to put students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds at a disadvantage. Those who have the financial means to afford expensive, private tutors typically score better on entrance exams. 

“I think that there are clearly evident issues with equity in standardized testing, as demonstrated by well-researched correlations between wealth and success on standardized tests,” Aiden Rood (‘23) said.

In correlation with Rood’s statement, Forbes reported in 2021 that a student’s average combined SAT score from a family income of less than $25,000 was about one hundred points lower than a student from a family income of $100,000 or more.

Test-optional does not mean students are completely giving up on entrance exams, however. With thousands of colleges not requiring entrance exam scores this year, many students still plan to send in test scores. Out of 103 East seniors, 55.3% said they plan to submit their scores to colleges and 29.1% said they plan to submit scores to some colleges and apply without test scores to other colleges. 

As it has been three years with the majority of colleges being test-optional, some colleges have begun to announce their plans for the future. 

Colleges like Harvard University— which announced the decision to remain test-optional through 2026— have already confirmed their commitment to staying test-optional for upcoming years. Many colleges such as Washington University in St. Louis, Cornell University, the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have announced that they will remain test-optional for 2023 and 2024.

On the other hand, some colleges have chosen to return to the traditional requirement of entrance exam scores. These colleges include all Florida public universities (as decided on by the state of Florida), all Georgia public universities (as decided on by the state of Georgia), the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University. 

This test-optional era of college admissions appears to benefit students with lower test scores. However, some people are skeptical about just how beneficial this policy is.

Former Dean of Admissions at Franklin & Marshall College Sara Harberson writes in her blog, “[colleges] simply are allowing students the choice on whether or not they report scores. But every college wants to brag about how high its test scores are for admitted students. High test scores still matter to them— big time.”

The decision on whether or not to submit test scores depends on every student’s unique situation. When it comes to colleges being test-optional, there is no “correct” answer. 

As test-optional policies are constantly changing, time will only tell what this means for the future of entrance exams.

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