cancelled letterboard

by Sara Calvert-Kubrom, former admissions officer at Lewis & Clark College

As we field calls from high school seniors and their parents, we have noticed that there is substantial confusion and uncertainty about what “test optional” is, and how to navigate the college admission process during this time of extensive SAT and ACT exam cancellations. Here are some tips and insights to demystify the landscape of standardized testing and college admission for this year’s seniors and to empower you to make informed decisions:

Most Students Impacted

Although I validate the emotional intensity of studying for months to only have exams all canceled, it is important to remember that the vast majority of high school seniors have been impacted by COVID-19 standardized test cancellations. Many students never took an exam and many others only took an exam once and never had the chance to re-test to increase their scores. Colleges know about the complexities facing high school students and are keeping this in mind as they prepare to read this year’s applications.

Defining the Terms: Test Optional vs. Test Blind

The vast majority of colleges in the U.S. have gone test optional for at least this year’s applicants. Test optional generally means that test scores are not required and the absence of scores will not be held against the student. Strong scores can still, however, increase the chance of admission (and merit scholarships at some schools) if a student has them. In contrast, some colleges have gone test blind which means that they will not use test scores in their admission process at all.

How are applications evaluated without test scores?

In my experience working at a test optional college, the high school transcript had increased importance for students applying without test scores. In evaluating the transcript many colleges will look not only at grades, but the rigor of the curriculum, years taken in each academic subject, trends in grades, and evidence of a student’s willingness to challenge themselves. Many colleges also place added emphasis on other parts of the application such as the activities list, essays, and letters of recommendation. Some colleges have additional application requirements for test optional applicants such as graded high school work supplements, additional essays, and/or specific requirements for teacher letters of recommendation. It is important to closely read the application requirements for test optional applicants on the website of the office of admission for each college and to reach out to them with any questions. Although test optional is new territory for many colleges, there are quite a few that have been test optional for years (some for decades), and they’re now serving as sources of guidance for colleges new to navigating the process.

Research Tips

  • If a student is unsure if they should submit their scores to a particular college, I encourage them to research the mid-50% test scores of that college’s past admitted students in order to make a data-driven decision. Although this decision varies for each student and college, it is often wise to submit scores if they are in the top half of the mid-50% ranges or higher; to consider not submitting (perhaps discuss with an admissions officer) if in the lower half of the mid-50% ranges; and not to submit if below. Score averages for most universities can be found on the College Board’s Big Future college profiles and on individual college websites.
  • FairTest maintains an up-to-date list of test optional colleges.
  • Closely read the testing policies and application requirements for each college on their admission website and reach out to admissions officers with questions.

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Written by Sara Calvert-Kubrom
Sara Calvert-Kubrom is a member of College Coach's team of college admissions consultants and a former admissions officer at Lewis & Clark College and leader of the Program at Northeastern University. Visit our website to learn more about Sara Calvert-Kubrom.