Test Prep

Test-Optional Admission: What You Need to Know Right Now

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Depending on which phase of the college journey you're in, the COVID-19 global pandemic may be radically shifting your approach. You may have been unable to take your SAT or ACT test as planned (though it looks like the SAT will still be offered in one form or another); your current classes may have gone pass/fail; and your extracurricular options may have shifted — or gone away altogether.


Although some colleges are moving to a test-optional admission model — the entire University of California system being the largest participant thus far — the hard work you've put in will not go to waste!

So What Does Test-Optional Admission Even Mean?

Let's start with the basics: test-optional admission is about expanding access to students, not reducing it. You're not going to be penalized for having taken the test; if anything, taking the test could help you distinguish yourself academically and qualify you for merit-based financial aid. That being said, you also won't be penalized for not having taken a test, or for taking it and not earning a top score. Instead, schools will look holistically at your overall application — not plug your test scores into an admissions formula. That means you'll have a range of opportunities to shine.

Think of your application as a load-bearing bridge, onto which the admissions officers are going to be applying pressure. Whereas before, your test scores might have helped to carry that weight, the focus is now going to be more evenly distributed across the other components of your bridge: your recommendation letters, your overall GPA and your essay. They'll also be considering how well you fit, not only on academic merits, but through your other qualifications, which range from things like your demonstrated interest in attending, any special talents that help you stand out, or the rigor of the classes and extracurriculars that you've taken.

In short, "test-optional" can mean a few things — all of them good for you. First, it can provide an opportunity for you to substitute some other key factor to help your application stand out. Some schools will even let you know in advance if they're looking for something specific in your additional application materials (and that's a great way for you to confirm fit, too). If standardized tests don't enable you to put your best foot forward, you can forego them for test-optional schools. Second, because many students will exercise the "option" part of "test-optional," your standardized test scores can offer you a chance to shine if you do opt to take the SAT or ACT. That is especially true right now, at this moment when many classes have moved to pass/fail grading (so you can't stand out by earning an A) and many extracurriculars have been canceled (so you can't stand out by pitching a no-hitter). Third, you may have additional time to prep now, so consider using it to boost your score! And finally, as mentioned earlier, a strong score can also open the door to college scholarship dollars — and who doesn't need those?

What If COVID-19 Has Disrupted Other Portions of My Application?

First off, remember that we're all in this together. COVID-19 is a global pandemic, so every student who is currently preparing to go to college is being affected in some way ... and every admissions team is well aware of this, too (those folks are also being affected). As test-optional schools evaluate your application, they'll be considering all of the following:

  • Your GPA. But note: If your high school switched to a pass/fail model, this means that your GPA won't be affected by those classes. If you're concerned this means that you're losing the opportunity to recover from a rough semester, just know that colleges will still be considering the trend of your grade, as well as the overall difficulty of your classes.
  • Your extracurriculars. As mentioned earlier, social distancing has likely affected your ability to participate in live extracurriculars like sports, band and theater. But where one door closes, another opens: this is your time to show schools how flexible you are in finding other ways to spend your time. It's also a chance to buckle down with the work you're putting in to your college essay and your outreach to the teachers and employers who can give you letters of recommendation.
  • Your test scores (if you submit them). Tests are still knowable and navigable, even in new formats, like the one temporarily being adapted by the at-home, modified May 2020 AP exams. This is where your ability to focus and study under unique pressures can really take center stage, since your grades will likely be curved alongside those of everyone else looking to adapt. We at The Princeton Review have more than 4,000 online tutors who have trained for exactly this moment, and now may be the perfect time to work with one of them.

Will Schools That Are Currently Test-Optional Stay Test-Optional?

Right now, many of the most recent test-optional institutions are suggesting that they're only temporarily switching, out of respect to the unique circumstances so many students find themselves in as a result of COVID-19. But schools are absolutely going to be studying the data they collect while test-optional, and they will be comparing their findings to the data from previous years' classes. To be clear, though, even if schools decide to remain test-optional, most of them still acknowledge that the ACT and SAT have their uses — as assessments and tools for awarding merit scholarships — so you may still opt to take at least one of the two.

Now, more than ever in these changing times, demonstrating to colleges that you're able to stay on top of a situation will help you to be a more desirable candidate. For that reason, make sure that you keep up with the news and prepare for any changes to your applications or testing situations accordingly. For daily updates on the impact of COVID-19 on admissions policies, subscribe to our YouTube channel and follow our COVID-19 web playlist. For more specifics on applying to college in the future (and how the current situation will affect your chances), check out the video at the top of this article.

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