Test Prep

How Do Colleges Compare Applicants Who Submit Test Scores With Those Who Don’t?

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How do test-optional schools compare two students with very similar holistic review criteria, but one student has an SAT/ACT score and one doesn't? Would a 33 ACT put the one student ahead of the non-tested student, even though we don't know what that student could have scored? Or would a 29 ACT taken early junior year actually rank that student below the non-tested student? Or does an early ACT show the student's motivation, preparedness and forethought, thus becoming an advantage?


Many admission officers, whose institutions switched suddenly to test-optional policies in the wake of COVID-19 closings, will be sailing in uncharted waters this season. And this is likely to be especially true at the uber-competitive colleges, where a large chunk of aspirants typically boast near-perfect grades in the tip-top classes along with a head-spinning array of extracurricular achievements. In past admission cycles, college officials often used test scores as tie-breakers among seemingly similar contenders. But this year, admission folks have vowed to accord no disadvantage to candidates who apply without test results. Yet, providing no disadvantage to test-free applicants isn't quite the same as providing some advantage to those who apply with high scores.

Huh? Well, no admission insider can tell you with certainty how all of this will shake out because it's far too soon to say. But "The Dean" sees it like this:

Test scores will still play some role in admission verdicts, but not the starring role that they've played over the eons (even when admission officials were reluctant to say so). Now, when a student sends in test scores that are at or above a college's traditional midpoint (and note that I say midpoint and not "median range," which is broader), then these strong results will serve as a checkmark in the plus column. However, a student who does not submit test scores can earn comparable pluses in other ways ... e.g., with atypical academic passions and success, with exceptional recommendations, unusual extracurricular accomplishments, etc. Making decisions without SATs and ACTs as a crutch will require admission officers to dig deeper and to more carefully examine each student's other strengths — and, hopefully — to better appreciate them.

My best guess, too, is that institutional needs may make a greater impact than in the past. In other words, when it becomes tough to distinguish among candidates, the ones who ultimately get good news may be those who are aiming for undersubscribed majors, who hail from an underrepresented part of the country — or the world, or who will bring uncommon talents or experiences to campus. While such institutional priorities have long been a factor in final verdicts, they may a bigger one in a test-optional era.

So to answer your questions ... a 33 ACT would be a tick in the plus column, but only at colleges where 33 is at or above dead center ... which means at most places, but not all. But the student who submits no tests could garner pluses in other ways. Therefore, it will become particularly essential to submit thoughtful, thorough applications. The "Additional Information" portion of applications (or a separate annotated resume) can spell out non-standard activities or unusual commitments to the standard ones. Regardless of where students are applying, it will be more important than ever to use the application to set themselves apart from the crowd.

For example, back when I read applications at Smith College, one young woman had listed "Babysitting — 15 hours/week." Of course, at Smith, this was far from rare. But then the school counselor, in her recommendation, explained that this babysitting "job" was actually unpaid. When a neighbor, a single mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer, our candidate had volunteered to watch her children every evening to give the mom a break during chemotherapy. The admission committee would never have known this had the counselor not included it, and it was certainly a tick in that proverbial "plus" column for the applicant. So today, without test scores to bolster favorable admission outcomes, students need to make an extra effort to enable admission committees to see the real person behind the prose. You speak of "very similar holistic review criteria," yet a well-crafted application may dispel those similarities.

Finally, an "early" ACT will not necessarily signal motivation, preparedness and forethought. If a score is below a college's midpoint, it probably shouldn't be sent. Here is a recent "Ask the Dean" column with more guidance on when to submit optional scores.

Again, "The Dean's" crystal ball is still murky. Most admission officers are navigating new turf, and their protocols in the months ahead may change over the coming years, especially if their colleges remain test-optional or if, eventually, tests are abolished entirely. One can only hope!

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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