Test Prep

Does Test-Optional for Admission Also Mean Test-Optional for Merit Aid?

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My daughter is a rising senior applying to a range of selective colleges. She stands a decent chance of admittance with an impressive high school academic record, including AP and honors coursework, a high GPA and class rank, extracurriculars with leadership roles, professional internships, a consistent part-time job and hundreds of hours of volunteer work. She has not been able to take the ACT. She is registered to take it this fall, fingers crossed. However, if she can't take the test, how does merit aid get awarded for a newly test-optional but more selective (less than 25 percent admittance) college?


That's a great question ... but without any great (or even good) answers right now. Colleges that offer merit aid but are newly test-optional are taking varied approaches to the role of SAT or ACT scores in the aid-allocation process. Most say that the money will be awarded without using scores, but a few claim that scores are required for merit consideration or — even more confusing — for some but not all of their merit grants.

FairTest: The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a non-profit organization that's tracked test-optional colleges for decades, has been slammed this spring with the landslide of colleges that have changed testing requirements. The FairTest folks are currently compiling a master list of institutions that will — or won't — expect test results for merit-money determinations, so you and your daughter should keep an eye on that site.

Meanwhile, your daughter should contact each college on her current list individually. Since she is aiming for places with low acceptance rates, you've probably already found that the roster of those that award merit aid (and not just need-based aid) isn't long. So it shouldn't be a big burden on her to email the regional admissions rep at each of her target colleges offering merit aid to ask if she will need to submit test scores to be in the running. It's usually wise for applicants to reach out to their regional reps anyway, so this a good reason for your daughter to do it — i.e., with a genuine concern rather than with some query that was clearly fabricated merely to "demonstrate interest."

As we wait for the FairTest round-up, "The Dean" is convinced that most of the newly test-optional colleges that claim that they will not discriminate against candidates who don't submit test scores will extend this policy to merit aid as well. So they will dole out their merit money based on other factors instead. My best guess is that "institutional needs" will play a bigger role than ever before when determining who gets merit aid when test scores are no longer playing a starring role.

In this earlier Ask the Dean column, "How Do Colleges Compare Applicants Who Submit Test Scores With Those Who Don't?," I explained how I think admission committees will make those tough apples versus oranges choices when comparing students who sent test results against those who did not. In the past, "boosting median test scores" was usually one of the front-runner institutional priorities that merit awards addressed. So, this year, college honchos will most likely be zeroing in on other priorities (which could include choice of major, demographics, etc.) and use these as guidelines in lieu of test scores when choosing the scholarship recipients.

What you and your daughter may also find through your research is that a few colleges might award their standard merit scholarships without test scores but will require scores for a biggie (i.e., full tuition or full ride) — the ones that typically require a separate application. So when your daughter writes to her rep, make sure she asks if test scores will be waived for all merit grants or just for some.

Of course, I wish I could provide you with a clearer answer, rife with specifics, along with a gaggle of admission officials who would come to your house and pinky swear that when they say, "No tests? No disadvantage!" they truly mean it. But unfortunately, like pretty much everything else we're doing during these crazy times, we just have to muddle through with uncertainty and hope for better days ahead.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at editorial@collegeconfidential.com.

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