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Should You Apply Test-Optional for the 2020-2021 Cycle?

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many standardized test dates were canceled or postponed. As a result, a vast majority of colleges elected to do away with standardized test requirements and become test-optional, at least for the current academic year. For some students, this may seem like a godsend. Others are disappointed — and still others are confused. What exactly does this mean for them? How will it affect the admissions process?


Before we dive in, you may want to check out this complete guide to test-optional colleges in 2020-2021. You’ll get expert tips from one of our CollegeVine co-founders!



What Does Test-Optional Really Mean?


Generally speaking, test-optional means that students can decide whether or not to submit their SAT or ACT scores as part of their applications. If they choose not to, then testing won’t factor into their admissions decisions.


Some selective schools — a little less than a third of U.S. institutions — had become test-optional even before the pandemic, such as the University of Chicago and Bowdoin College. The rationale was twofold: test-optional policies tended to increase application volume, and colleges could target students with other desirable traits while still maintaining their testing averages. And, while not the primary motivation, going test-optional also attracted positive publicity. 


Amherst College, for example, says that standardized testing is optional for the 2020-21 admission cycle and “constitutes only one element of our comprehensive and holistic application review process.” 


Even Harvard has become test-optional for applicants for the class of 2025, saying that students will not be “disadvantaged” in the admissions process if they don’t submit scores. According to Harvard, “applications will be considered on the basis of what [students] have presented, and they are encouraged to send whatever materials they believe would convey their accomplishments in secondary school and their promise for the future.” 


Note that test-optional is different from test-blind, which means that the school won’t consider test scores at all, even if the applicant submits them. Caltech is one such school. In response to the pandemic, the college announced that it would not consider SAT or ACT scores as part of the admissions process for students applying for entry in Fall 2021 and 2022. Bear in mind, however, that even if a school is test-blind, your scores may still make you eligible for certain scholarships and play a role in areas like course placement.


Pros and Cons of Test-Optional Policies


Given the unpredictability of the virus and its impact on higher education, it’s no surprise that standardized testing is up in the air. Most students who are applying for admission for Fall 2021 enrollment are unable to submit test scores, with the exception of those who were able to take the SAT or ACT before March, or those who can get a Fall 2020 test date. 


Test-optional policies offer advantages beyond this. Some students, for example, suffer from test anxiety, and their performance on standardized tests doesn’t reflect their academic capabilities. Perhaps they shine in other areas, and colleges will focus on these qualities more heavily considering the absence of test scores. 


Test-optional policies could have even broader effects. According to one study, student diversity has increased at institutions that have adopted them previously. 


On the flip side, if your grades aren’t as high as you might like, the policy might end up hurting you, because your GPA will play a stronger role in your admissions decision. The same goes for other aspects of your application, such as your extracurricular activities and recommendations. In a year where many high schools have changed their grading policies to pass/fail and students have had a hard time pursuing extracurricular activities, it may also be more difficult to assess candidates and their potential.


Moreover, test-optional isn’t the same thing as test-blind — and deciding not to submit scores could detrimentally impact applicants. According to our data, students who applied to a test-optional school who submitted scores above the 25th percentile were accepted at roughly two times the rate of students who applied without submitting scores (this is for students with similar profiles otherwise). 


Somewhat surprisingly, even students who submitted scores below the 25th percentile were accepted at a rate 1.25 times that of students who did not submit test scores. That indicates that test-optional schools still prefer that students do submit scores.


Should I Still Take the SAT/ACT?


If you’re able to take the SAT or ACT, then do it! Submitting a good score will only help you. If it comes down to two candidates with similar academic profiles and only one has submitted high standardized test scores, that student will likely be chosen over the one who hasn’t.


Remember, too, that if you take the test and don’t perform as well as you’d hoped, you can always go test-optional. That said, it’s important to prioritize your safety — so if sitting for the test endangers you or your loved ones, don’t do it.

What About SAT Subject Tests?


Over the years, SAT Subject Tests, formerly called SAT IIs, have become less and less important in the admissions process. Some schools have stated that they won’t consider them at all as part of the policy changes because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Amherst, for example, says, “At their own discretion, applicants may still submit SAT or ACT scores for consideration, but SAT Subject Tests will not be considered as part of the evaluation of any applicant’s academic record.” Similarly, Yale, which has gone test-optional for the 2020–21 admissions cycle, will also no longer be considering Subject Tests for this period.


For selective schools, including the top 20 universities and liberal arts colleges — aside from those that don’t consider them — it’s a good idea to take 2-3 Subject Tests if you can and have the time. If not, don’t worry too much; focus on your coursework and essays instead,  especially during this admissions cycle.


Should I Submit My Score?


If your SAT or ACT scores fall within 60 points of the 25th percentile score (SAT) or three points of the 25th percentile score (ACT) for accepted students at the college in question, then you should go ahead and submit them. Colleges typically post their middle 50% range, so if, for example, a school lists an SAT score of 1250 at the low end (25th percentile) of this range, you should go ahead and submit a combined score of 1190 or higher.


If they don’t fall within this range, then don’t submit them — they will only hurt your application. But if you were unable to take the tests because of COVID, then be sure to say so on your application.


Bear in mind that the overall test score ranges will likely be somewhat lower this admissions cycle. That’s because most students typically take the tests multiple times, and the superscored result is usually achieved after at least two attempts. This year, however, even students who took the exams at all weren’t able to do so more than once.


According to our data, SAT scores were on average 60 points lower and ACT scores were three points lower for the class of 2021 than the class of 2020. This is comparing students with similar academic abilities, and using geography to control for the impact COVID has had on different regions. That means that even if your scores are a bit lower than the posted average, they could still be on par with this year’s averages.


Of course, it’s hard to predict how colleges will consider individual students’ cases. Therefore, if your scores leave something to be desired and the rest of your profile is strong, then you should apply test-optional. Likewise, if you have a unique hook or trait — such as a heavily recruited demographic background or are a first-generation college student — you’re well-positioned to benefit from test-optional policies, if your scores aren’t within our recommended thresholds.


Conversely, if you come from a middle- or upper-class background and have more of a “prototypical” profile, then you’ll need to stand out in other ways if you intend to apply test-optional. You may, for example, want to invest extra effort into your coursework, extracurriculars, and essays.


Final Tips


If you do decide to apply test-optional, communicating with the colleges on your list will be especially important. This is especially true if Covid-19 impacted your ability to take the SAT or ACT.


In order to demonstrate this, make sure you list all the tests you had signed up to take, with the corresponding dates in the Additional Information section (or a similar section on other applications). Also, ask your school counselor to include the same information in their letter of recommendation. Since many students will be in the same boat, colleges are likely to be more flexible in how they weigh standardized testing this year.


See our list of top test-optional schools for 2020-2021 for more info on this year’s test-optional policies.


Do you have what it takes to get into your top-choice school? Find out with CollegeVine’s free Admissions Calculator (even if you’re planning to go test-optional!). We’ll estimate your real odds of admission to your dream college — and give you guidance on how to increase your chances. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account to get a jumpstart on your college strategy today!

Short Bio
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket, and Funny-ish. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.