After the Covid-19 pandemic made it near impossible to secure a testing site for many students, almost all colleges across the U.S. announced a “test-optional” policy for applicants. For the first time ever, applicants to top-tier schools were not required to submit SAT or ACT scores. Many students, including those who had put off the exams or were struggling to score highly, breathed a sigh of relief. If they would not be at a disadvantage without test scores, as colleges assured them, then they wouldn’t have to spend hours preparing. After all, why would colleges say it if it wasn’t true?
While we want to believe that schools are going test-optional because they have students’ best interests at heart and want to help even the playing field, we have to keep in mind that even elite universities are businesses. Any move that will strategically increase the number of applications a school receives should be looked at with a healthy dose of skepticism. Furthermore, not only do colleges and universities inaccurately tout the scores as an indicator of how students will perform in their classrooms, but their coveted U.S. News & World Report rankings are still based in some measure on their average SAT or ACT scores for their incoming freshman class.
What “Test Optional” Means in Competitive College Admissions
The test-optional policy inadvertently gives thousands of students a false sense of hope, as they may now feel like Ivy League schools are within reach even without submitting an SAT score. What they don’t realize, however, is that they are still at a disadvantage. Colleges will still favor students who have strong test scores over those who have none. This past application cycle proved that just under 90% of those admitted to Georgetown University’s Class of 2025 had submitted test results, and for Vanderbilt University, 61.1% of admitted students applied with test scores.
In reality, if two students with equal qualifications — outstanding GPA, competitive internship and extracurricular experience, strong letters of recommendation, to name a few — apply to the same Ivy League and top universities but only one of them submits a near-perfect SAT or ACT score, and the other chooses the test-optional route, the student who submitted a score would probably be admitted over the student who decided not to take the test. The hard fact is that even though it reads “optional,” many colleges still tend to favor strong test scores over none at all.
That’s why it’s important to understand the real reason colleges go test-optional and what that means for students who submit these applications. Wafa Muflahi, Partner and Senior Program Director of Command Education, a $1,000 per hour boutique college consulting firm, knows exactly what colleges are looking for and what students should do in order to stand out and have the best chance when applying to top tier colleges.
According to Muflahi, a test-optional policy does not mean that a college will not consider test scores entirely. “If a college really wanted to create a level playing field, they would need to adopt a test-blind policy.”
As opposed to a test-optional policy, a test-blind policy means that colleges wouldn’t allow students to submit test scores at all, whether they have taken them or not. This way, colleges would consider applicants based on the other parts of their applications.
What Ivy League and Top Tier Colleges are Looking For
While schools say standardized test scores are indicators of academic success in college, in reality, the SAT and ACT tests are fully coachable exams. With enough preparation, tutoring, and practice, most students can achieve their goal score, be it a 1450 or a 1600. The coachable nature of this exam means that while students need to score as highly as possible to be competitive, they also need to go the extra mile in demonstrating their uniqueness as an applicant.
Ultimately, top schools have their pick of the litter. With most schools having received a record-breaking number of applications this past cycle, they could fill their incoming freshman class several times over with 4.0 GPAs and 1600 SAT scores. “Nowadays, test scores and G.P.A. alone won’t get you into a top school,” says Christopher Rim, founder and CEO of Command Education. “You need really standout extracurricular activities that make your application memorable.”
This article originally appeared in the NY Post and can be viewed there in its’ entirety.