Not perfect? Consider the Test-Optional College Path

Standardized testing in flux

Are you one of the many aspiring college students who has excellent study habits, but for some reason, such as nerves, misses your goal on the first or second or third attempt at the ACT or SAT? You are not alone; one survey claims one-out-of-every-six students struggles with standardized tests.

High school students who feel their primary test score does not reflect their true value to a university should consider colleges that offer a “test-optional” application option.

Many colleges turn from SAT/ACT

Decades of debate about the fairness of an ACT/SAT score exploded in 2019 when test-score cheating came to light. There already had been an inherent distrust in the SAT’s and ACT’s ability to predict future success and a desire to improve campus diversity.

This lack of confidence has resulted in a tremendous surge in the number of colleges going “test-optional”—at the moment more than 1,000 schools and growing. More than half the U.S. News & World Report “Top 100” liberal arts colleges now are test-optional. The University of Chicago was among the many recent universities to implement test-optional policies. “Testing is one piece,” said VP-enrollment and student advancement James Nondorf, noting applicants choosing the path can submit a video profile or creative/artistic work.

Rules are different at each school

So, if you feel your chances for college acceptance are being hindered by test numbers, you should carefully research “test-optional” schools, understanding that each college may have slightly different rules. It’s up to you to find out the details.

Test-optional universities have developed algorithms that rebalance other factors such as coursework, grades, AP scores, class rank and especially the application essay. Many require additional essays on a variety of subjects to learn how you think. Within the universe of colleges, some call themselves “test-flexible”; they may ask for test scores but in lieu of those require an SAT Subject Test, an International Baccalaureate test, specific AP tests, samples of academic work such as scientific research. Both sets may require additional recommendation letters.

According to FairTest Public Education Director Robert Schaeffer, “We are especially pleased to see many public universities and access-oriented private colleges deciding that test scores are not needed to make sound educational decisions. … Eliminating [the] ACT/SAT requirement is a ‘win-win’ for students and schools.” The FairTest organization is working to end standardized test misuse and flaws and to ensure the evaluation of students is fair and open.

As noted previously, test-optional universities have found a wide assortment of ways beyond a 29 ACT score to measure the probability of success by any student.

Demonstrate challenges met

While each school has its own weighting system, most put a premium on the rigor of class choices and a pattern of increasing challenges through the high school years. Beyond that, they most want to see an illuminating recommendation letter and a genuinely thought-provoking essay. After that, many of these colleges expect to see appropriate extracurricular activities, especially involving volunteerism for the greater good. A college is a community and beyond coursework, they want activist students who devote themselves to worthy causes. If you present yourself honestly and highlight sincere accomplishments you can attract universities that know a test score is just a number.

–MIKE RYAN