Do US colleges and universities still require SAT or ACT scores? If not, what exactly are their policies with respect to standardized testing?
Most US colleges and universities adhere to one of the three policy types listed below:
1. Tests Required – a small number of schools still require SAT or ACT scores, just as they did before the coronavirus pandemic. This group includes MIT, Georgia Tech, and Georgetown University.
2. Test Blind – a small number of schools are “test blind,” meaning that they will not consider SAT or ACT scores in their admissions decisions, even if students submit such scores. This group includes Caltech, the entire University of California system, and some colleges at Cornell University.
3. Test Optional – most schools do not require SAT or ACT scores but will still consider such scores if students choose to submit them. This group includes Stanford, the University of Chicago, and most of the Ivy League.
Why is the University of California system test blind?
The University of California system adopted a test-blind policy last year, in response to a lawsuit that claimed that the use of standardized test scores had illegally disadvantaged some students on the basis of race, disability, and other protected statuses.
That lawsuit was simply the latest skirmish in a decades-long conflict over the role of race in University of California admissions—a conflict that goes at least as far back as the approval of the anti-affirmative-action measure Proposition 209 in 1996 and that has little to do with the coronavirus pandemic.
Why are most schools now test-optional? Are test-optional policies solely a response to the coronavirus pandemic?
The coronavirus pandemic forced most schools to adopt test-optional policies in 2020, but some schools had chosen to adopt such policies even before the pandemic hit. For example, the University of Chicago has been test-optional since 2018, and Bowdoin College – a top-tier liberal arts school – has been test-optional since 1969.
Why would colleges and universities choose to adopt test-optional policies? As it turns out, implementing such policies can yield a number of significant benefits, especially for colleges and universities that are actively trying to raise their own profiles:
1. Lower acceptance rates. By removing a major application requirement, test-optional policies increase application numbers and thus lead to lower acceptance rates. Lower acceptance rates are generally seen as a key measure of prestige; until just a few years ago, they were also a key factor in the US News college and university rankings.
2. Higher average SAT/ACT scores. By enabling lower-scoring students to apply without submitting test results, test optional policies often actually raise a school’s average SAT and ACT scores – another key measure of prestige and still a key factor in the US News rankings.
3. Increased racial diversity. Test optional policies may allow universities to increase enrollment of “underrepresented minorities” – racial groups that have traditionally underperformed on standardized tests – without lowering their average SAT/ACT scores (see above). This group does not include Asian or Asian-American students.
What is the real difference between “test-blind” and “test-optional”? Aren’t these policies effectively the same?
Test-blind policies and test-optional policies are actually very different.
Schools with test-blind policies simply do not consider SAT and ACT scores during the admissions process. For example, UCLA is test blind. If a student submits SAT scores to UCLA, the scores will never make their way into the student’s application file and thus will never be seen by admissions staff. (Test-blind schools are called “test-blind” for precisely this reason: the scores will never be seen.) Per UCLA’s admissions website:
UCLA will not consider SAT or ACT scores for admission or scholarship purposes….https://admission.ucla.edu/apply/freshman/freshman-requirements
In contrast, schools with test-optional policies will consider SAT or ACT scores if students choose to submit them. SAT or ACT scores will be viewed alongside other components of an application – grades, recommendations, essays, extracurricular activities, and so on. Harvard describes its own test optional policy as follows:
If you ask that our review includes your scores, either at the time of application or after you apply by submitting the form in the Applicant Portal, they will be part of your application throughout the admissions process.https://college.harvard.edu/admissions/apply/application-requirements
But don’t “test optional” policies essentially mean that colleges no longer care about SAT and ACT scores?
No. “Optional” does not mean “unimportant” – at least not in the world of competitive college and university admissions.
In fact, many of the most important components of successful applications – the components that really make one applicant stand out above others – are optional:
- Taking IB classes or participating in the IB Programme is optional.
- Taking A-Level courses or participating in the A-Level Programme is optional.
- Taking AP classes or participating in the AP Program is optional.
- Participating in sports – whether inside or outside of school – is optional.
- Participating in high school clubs is optional.
- Participating in academic competitions is optional.
- Participating in internships or other employment opportunities is optional.
- Participating in volunteer work or community service is optional.
- Playing a musical instrument is optional.
- Engaging in entrepreneurship is optional.
- Leadership experience of any kind is optional.
- Any sort of “passion project” is optional.
- Awards of any kind are optional.
- Some application essays and interviews are even optional.
Colleges and universities continue to recognize the value of standardized test scores. For example, Stanford’s most recent Common Data Set continues to classify standardized test scores as “Very Important” – the same designation given to other key criteria like “Academic GPA” and “Application Essay.” And Harvard’s admissions website still includes lines like the following:
Standardized tests provide a rough yardstick of what a student has learned over time and how that student might perform academically in college….
SAT and ACT tests are better predictors of Harvard grades than high school grades [are]….https://college.harvard.edu/admissions/apply/application-requirements
Accordingly, strong SAT and ACT scores can still add significant weight to your application.
Have test optional policies made it easier to gain admission to US colleges and universities?
No. In fact, the opposite is almost certainly true.
The dawn of the test-optional era has seen record-high application numbers – especially among international students – and record-low acceptance rates. Today’s high school students are facing the most competitive admissions landscape in history.
Per an April 8, 2022, article in the Washington Post:
Prominent U.S. colleges and universities are reporting a surge in international applications over the past two years, fueled by … new policies that allow potential students to apply without SAT or ACT scores.
… Some big-name private schools revealed huge increases [in international applications]: Dartmouth College, up 71 percent; Yale University, up 99 percent.
At Yale, one of the world’s most selective universities, applications from all locations, foreign and domestic, topped 50,000 this year for the first time. That’s up 42 percent from the total the university received in 2020. Yale’s admissions rate, which was 6.5 percent that year, sank to 4.5 percent this year.
″More than half of the total increase in the applicant pool over those two years has come from international applicants,” Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid, wrote in an email….https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2022/04/08/international-student-applications-growth-colleges/
Per an April 21, 2022, article in the Wall Street Journal:
A reason [that] applications were so inflated is because more than three-quarters of colleges and universities have stopped mandating entrance exams. With that barrier removed, more students tried their luck at selective schools…
The result is that … the most selective U.S. schools are drawing from a broader applicant pool—and that is driving the bar for admission higher than in past years.
High volume means admissions officers at some elite colleges spend just a few minutes reviewing individual applications. This places enormous pressure on students to stand out, and not just among their own high-school classmates.https://www.wsj.com/articles/to-get-into-the-ivy-league-extraordinary-isnt-always-enough-these-days-11650546000
If I am applying mostly or only to test-optional schools, should I still plan to take the SAT or the ACT?
As discussed above, today’s high school students are facing the most competitive college admissions landscape in history. Top US colleges and universities have seen their application numbers soar to all-time highs and their admissions rates plummet to all-time lows – a trend driven largely by a surge in test-optional international applications.
It is more important than ever to stand out, and strong SAT or ACT scores can still help you do precisely that.
For that reason, we continue to recommend that students at least attempt either the SAT or the ACT, to see whether they might be able to earn scores that would improve their profiles and thus their chances at admissions.
Standardized test scores continue to be especially important for students who need to improve their profiles late in the game: it is much easier to raise your SAT score the summer before senior year than it is to improve your grades at that point, for example.