Test Prep

5 Facts About This Fall’s Test-Optional Admissions Landscape

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As a growing number of colleges continue to go test-optional for the coming admissions cycle, students are increasingly curious about how the move might impact them. Although there are few certainties about how admissions might unfold this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you will find some concrete facts that you can rely on as you navigate the process.


To pinpoint those areas, College Confidential sat down with Jodi Siegel, a college admissions consultant with College Bound in Potomac, Md., and former admissions officer at George Washington University. Check out the following facts that Siegel shared about test-optional admissions.

1. Test-Optional Differs from Test-Blind, Test-Flexible

There's a difference between test-optional and test-blind admissions, Siegel says.

With test-optional admissions, you have the choice of sending test scores or withholding them as part of your application. If you send them, the school will consider them as part of your overall application, and they could influence your admissions decision.

When a school is test-blind, that means it won't consider your test scores as part of your application, so even if you send them, they won't factor into the decision.

In addition, Siegel notes, some schools are test-flexible, which means if you choose not to send SAT or ACT scores, you can substitute a different test in their place, such as AP scores or SAT Subject Test scores, depending on the school's guidelines.

"You should understand the testing policy specific to the colleges you're applying to and read the entire policy," she notes.

2. Some Test-Optional Schools Might Prefer Test Scores

Some schools, like Wake Forest University, have been test-optional for a while, while others are test-optional this year because they want to be understanding to students who haven't had a chance to sit for the tests during the pandemic. There may be a difference in how these schools feel about submitting scores.

For instance, when Cornell University announced that it would be test-optional this fall, the school noted that students who already have scores are encouraged to submit them. "We anticipate that many students who will have had reasonable and uninterrupted opportunities to take the ACT and/or SAT during 2020 administrations will continue to submit results, and those results will continue to demonstrate preparation for college-level work," the school said.

Oregon State University, however, took a different route completely, with Vice Provost Jon Boeckenstedt sharing an open letter to students applying this fall that states, "Please don't test … I've written for over a decade about how unimportant these tests are, and they become even more trivial now, when students literally have to risk their lives to take them."

This is another reason you should check each school's testing policies, so you know whether the school, although test-optional, still expects to receive scores if you already had the ability to test.

3. Certain Colleges Will Expect Additional Materials

There are some colleges that may want you to submit additional materials in lieu of test scores, Siegel says. In certain cases, this may mean you'll write an additional essay, submit an extra recommendation letter or send in a writing sample. For some schools, this extra information may be required, while in others it could be optional as well. For instance, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell offers students who choose not to send test scores the opportunity to submit an additional essay "that offers insights into your personal experience and background."

Students who are planning to apply to schools without submitting test scores should take note of any additional requirements up front so they provide themselves with ample time to get everything completed well before the deadline, Siegel suggests.

4. Expect Greater Focus on Other Application Areas

When a school doesn't require test scores, your application will be reviewed holistically, with the admissions committee looking at your entire application package as a whole. "This means things like your academic coursework and your strength in those classes will be more amplified," Siegel says. "Your curriculum choices, whether you took advanced classes or not, and how you've done, will be highlighted more since the schools won't have test scores. Everything else, including essays, extracurriculars and recommendation letters, will be more important."

Some schools have come out and said how they'll evaluate applications under the test-optional policies. The University of Pittsburgh's School of Arts and Sciences won't require test scores this fall, and has shared its holistic review factors, as follows:

  1. Strength of student's academic coursework (grade trends and senior year curriculum choices).
  2. Performance in advanced courses (grade trends, honors, APs, IB, and post-secondary coursework)
  3. Short answer/essay questions
  4. Extracurricular activities.

Check the websites of the schools where you plan to apply to see if they've shared similar insights into their holistic review processes.

5. Don't Rely on Past Data to Calculate Admission Odds

Although many families rely on information from sources like the Common Data Set to determine their admission odds, that may not be a reliable indicator this year, Siegel says. For instance, at some schools, the spring 2020 semester was pass/fail for some students, or in other cases, everyone who met a certain grade threshold got an A in their classes.

"So it will be challenging to determine how reliable grades are for spring of junior year," she notes. "Colleges will have trouble differentiating a real 99 percent from a school that just awards all students an 'A.' That shows how complicated this is. My opinion is that this will be the hardest application cycle in terms of review for admission committees because they may not have reliable grades, and they probably won't have test scores."

In addition, a lot of students are restricted in terms of which extracurriculars they can do. "So how will they decide? We don't know — and I don't know that colleges have figured it out either," Siegel says.

To stand out, she advises students to do the best with what they have, which means focusing strongly on the following areas:

  • Pay attention to course selection for 12th grade. Take advanced courses that appeal to you, if possible — particularly the ones that connect to your interests and possible major.
  • Focus strongly on your essays. "This is an opportunity to really work hard and show not just your ability as a writer, but also to show who you are and represent yourself in the strongest way possible," Siegel says.
  • Make sure your extracurriculars include all you've done. "Your activities may not be organized by the school anymore, but be sure to share how you have engaged with your community, family and interests during this time," Siegel says. For instance, if you've set up online club meetings, created a socially-distant workout routine, mowed lawns, babysat for working parents in your neighborhood or other activities, share that. "Maybe you've been painting," she says. "I know a student who's been farming. I think situations like this, while incredibly extreme and unprecedented, only serve to highlight the rock stars."

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