Here’s Why Going Test-Optional Isn’t the Right Choice for Some


Siena Ruark

Bromfield student studies for an upcoming SAT test by correcting a practice exam.

Applying to college is like a game; It involves strategy, preparedness, and a dash of luck. Until recently, one essential part of nearly every college application was an SAT or ACT standardized test score. I say “until recently” because since the start of the global pandemic, many schools no longer require that their applicants submit a test score, and they have no plans to bring them back; All of the ivy league schools recently extended their test-optional policies to as far out as 2027. On the surface, this seems exciting: students no longer have to spend countless hours studying for these long and difficult tests, only for their score to hamper their college application. However, for most students, the truth is that there is more to test-optional than meets the eye. 

Firstly, removing standardized testing scores can make it harder for applicants officers to stand out. Unlike essays, GPA, and extracurricular activities, test scores are concrete, universal numbers that help to compare applicants directly. MIT recently reinstated their test mandate, their reasoning being that high test scores help to single out truly talented applicants. In an application without a test score, admissions officers often shift their focus to look for outstanding essays and a deep involvement in the community, not to mention an excellent weighted GPA. Therefore, those who remove the test score from their application need their other attributes to pay extra dividends. There is also extra focus on test scores when it comes to financial aid packages and scholarships. This is becoming increasingly important as the price of college education rises; Boston University just announced a 4.25% increase in undergraduate tuition, putting it over $60,000 for the first time. Many state schools offer scholarships to all applicants over a certain standardized test score threshold. Additionally, merit-based scholarships almost always depend on GPAs and test scores. 

In addition to the downsides discussed above, the lack of a test score can be highly misleading to applicants themselves. Usually, test scores give students a fairly accurate idea of where they have a fair chance of gaining admission. For example, the average student that received an 1100 on the SAT is well aware that they will not be attending Harvard University come the fall. However, now that test scores are no longer required, a student who simply has a high GPA may confidently apply to Harvard. Unfortunately, the harsh reality is that Harvard looks for a lot more in an applicant. Jillian Baylor, who is a Harvard interviewer, told Business Insider that she is particularly interested in what makes students special: “What makes this student different than the student on either side of them? What makes them different from their friends at school? What makes them unique?” High GPAs are especially an issue here because the GPA inflation has been an issue for a long time. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the average high school GPA rose from 2.68 in 1990 to 3.38 in 2016. The result is that elite schools – especially in the ivy league – see an increasing number of applicants every year, although many of them have no realistic chance of getting in. In turn, the acceptance rate, a key metric in measuring the prestige of a school, increases. For example, this year, Northeastern University received 91,000 applications, compared to 62,000 in 2019. Because the class size (the number of people accepted)  did not change significantly between the two years, the acceptance rate declined. Its acceptance rate of 7% this year certainly sounds impressive. 

 (Siena Ruark) Lastly, the motives behind the shift to test-optional may be somewhat blurry. Any college will say that a main reason for allowing applicants without test scores is to introduce more diversity to their campus. The thought is that it creates an opportunity for international and minority students. However, results from a study performed by the University of California suggest the opposite; The lack of SAT scores makes it more difficult for underrepresented students to gain recognition from universities. In the eyes of an admissions officer, a good test score can make up for a student’s lack of access to higher level classes and extracurriculars. No matter the case, the reality is that schools really do this to increase their applicant pool. 

To some students, the term “test-optional” means that not submitting a standardized test score puts them at zero disadvantage. However, in most cases, that is simply untrue. For high school students, there are a lot of opportunities that are labeled as optional: extracurriculars, AP exams, etc. Despite that, all of them are very important factors in college admissions. The same is true for test scores: they still have a place in most college applications – at least for now.