Friday, July 19College Admissions News

Is Test-Optional Over? Why Test Scores Still Matter


In 2024, several elite colleges dropped their test-optional admissions policies and returned to requiring SAT/ACT scores as part of the admissions process. 

This is a major change in college admissions–and one that may be adopted by other colleges and universities in the future. With more college admissions changes potentially on the horizon, how can you plan your college application process? How do you know which colleges are test optional and which colleges require SAT/ACT scores?

Our expert admissions counselors are weighing in and giving you the tips and insider knowledge you need to know so you’re prepared for a changing college admissions landscape. Keep reading to learn more!


Colleges are bringing back testing polices…kinda like this enthusiastic Labrador playing fetch.


Why Are Colleges Bringing Back SAT/ACT Scores? 

During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, hundreds of colleges changed their standardized testing requirements. Many schools switched to test optional policies, which allowed applicants to choose whether to submit SAT/ACT scores. Students who didn’t submit scores weren’t negatively impacted in the admissions process, and students who did submit scores didn’t get an advantage. 

The COVID-19 pandemic sped up a test-optional admissions trend that had been gaining traction over the previous decade. This change started because scientific studies indicated that demographic factors like race and income level unfairly impacted students’ test scores. This data raised concerns among college officials about bias in admissions, particularly whether test scores contributed to lack of diversity.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, family hardships, disrupted classroom learning, and stay-at-home mandates made prepping for and taking the SAT and ACT difficult for many students. Suddenly, standardized testing seemed more like a burden than a benefit for college admissions. 

In response to these challenges, universities adopted test optional admissions in an attempt to promote diversity and fairness. But now those policies are changing again. 

Several years of post-COVID data have indicated that, combined with high school grades, standardized test scores are actually pretty accurate predictors of student success in college. Based on this data, several elite colleges have decided that test scores help to make the admissions process less biased, not more biased. As a result, some schools are reinstating their test requirements. 

Keep in mind that these newly reinstated testing policies may look different now than they did before the era of test optional admissions. Some schools, like Yale, will allow students to submit Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) exam scores in place of the ACT or SAT. Others, like Caltech, require either SAT or ACT scores and won’t accept other exam scores in their place. 




Have test-optional policies fixed a broken admissions process? Maybe not.


Does Test-Optional Work? 

When schools started moving toward test-optional policies, the goal was to make admissions more fair. Many standardized testing critics believed that test scores hurt applicants from marginalized communities because they didn’t have the same access to test prep resources as more affluent students. 

The COVID-19 pandemic put this theory to the test as many schools, including some of the most prestigious institutions in the U.S., went temporarily test-optional. As a result, many colleges saw increased numbers of applicants once testing policies were removed. For example, Cornell received 30% more applications after going test optional

The rise in applicants caused admissions rates to shrink as well. Cornell’s admissions rate dropped from 15% in 2019 to 10% in 2022 after its test-optional policy went into place. Other top universities like Stanford, Harvard, and Brown saw similar trends in their data as well. In other words, test-optional policies made it harder for everyone to get into college. 

Universities saw this as an opportunity to gather data on test-optional policies to determine if they should keep them in place moving forward. One key study from Dartmouth analyzed admissions data from 2017-2019 before test-optional policies were put in place, and compared that information with data from 2021 and 2022 where students weren’t required to submit scores. 

Researchers found that test-optional policies actually harmed marginalized groups. First, test scores helped highlight how students performed against their peers. For instance, scoring a 1400 on your SAT at a low-performing high school is more impressive than scoring a 1400 at a school where students have access to more resources. As a result, test scores can help quantify marginalized students’ achievement more accurately. 

Additionally, when test scores are removed from applications, other sections of student applications receive more weight. That includes extracurricular activities and achievements, which often favor students from more affluent backgrounds. Schools will also evaluate essays more heavily, which can impact marginalized students from underperforming high schools who don’t have access to essay coaching and writing resources. 

While Dartmouth’s study is just one example, the fact that many top schools are returning to a test-required policy tells us that these data points likely aren’t outliers. Other schools are seeing similar trends, which is why they’re reinstating standardized testing policies. But that decision doesn’t magically solve inequity in the college admissions system, so schools will likely keep searching for new ways to make the application process fairer for everyone. 



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How to Find Out Which Colleges Are Test Optional

With more changes potentially on the horizon, getting a handle on how your top schools are handling SAT/ACT scores is key to putting together successful college applications. 

But how do you know which colleges are test optional and which colleges require SAT/ACT? 


Keep an Eye on the Calendar 

First, it’s a good idea to get a sense of when schools are likely to make changes to their admissions policies. It isn’t likely that schools will make admissions changes in the months leading up to early admissions deadlines, which is basically August through December. That way, the admissions policies don’t change after students have started putting together their apps.   

Instead, schools are most likely to announce testing policy changes after final admissions deadlines. Based on recent trends, colleges announce admissions changes between January and early May. For instance, Yale and Dartmouth announced their new testing requirements in February, Harvard and Brown announced in early March, and Cornell announced in April. That time frame gives schools plenty of time to implement changes and applicants several months to prepare. 


Check Your Schools’ Admissions Pages 

Even so, the best way to ensure you don’t miss any major news is by keeping up with your top schools throughout the admissions process. 

One good way to do this is by regularly checking each school’s admissions website. Most colleges include an “application checklist” on their admissions page that walks you through everything you need to prep and submit as part of your application. You’ll find information about test score requirements there! 

Many universities provide a link to their application for admission on their website as well. Once you’ve finalized your college list, look over each school’s application page to ensure you  haven’t missed updates to their testing policy

And if you’re on social media, follow your schools’ profiles and accounts. You can also subscribe to email newsletters and sign up for any other official university communications that will bring you cutting edge details on the admissions process at your schools. 


Know What To Do If You’re Confused

You may find conflicting information about a school’s test policy online, especially if that policy changed recently. If that happens, contact an admissions counselor. They’ll have the most up-to-date information and can walk you through what you need to know. 





3 Tips For Preparing For Admissions Testing Changes 

Though some colleges may be waiting to change their test optional policies, you shouldn’t wait to prepare for whatever comes next! Our experts have put together three insider tips on how to get ready for college admissions when testing requirements are changing


Tip 1: Prep for and Take the SAT or ACT

Even if the schools you’re applying to are currently test optional, that may not always be the case. That’s why it’s important to study for and take either the SAT or ACT. That way, you’re prepared for every standardized testing possibility. 

But say your choice schools continue to be test optional. Taking the SAT or ACT is still in your best interest! While test optional schools don’t require standardized test scores, they still consider them if you choose to include them in your application. 

Submitting your SAT/ACT scores helps colleges gain a more comprehensive sense of who you are as a student. They can also tip the scales in your favor if you’re scoring in the top percentiles. (If you’re not sure whether your test scores are good or not, check out our guides to great ACT scores and great SAT scores for more information.)


Tip 2: Have A Spike Approach

Another way to make your application stand out is to take a spike approach when it comes to your extracurriculars. Admissions committees like to see applicants who committed to fewer activities with a lot of passion and dedication. 

At PrepScholar, we call this an application spike approach. It’s a tested technique that’s helped countless college hopefuls—and PrepScholar students!—snag acceptance letters to the school of their dreams.

A spike approach pairs well with SAT/ACT scores because it tells the admissions committee things about who you are as a student that your test scores can’t. While your exams might show that you have an aptitude for math or that you’re a great test taker, your spike approach demonstrates your dedication, perseverance, and willingness to develop skills and goals in an area that you love. 


Tip 3: Write Stellar Essays

One thing that’s not likely to change about college admissions is the admissions essay. Essays are your chance to show schools why they should accept you, even if they have thousands of qualified applicants. 

Essays can also help you make a case for why you’re a qualified applicant if your SAT/ACT scores aren’t quite what you’d hoped. You can use that space to express how you’re prepared for college and win over admissions counselors with your dedication and passion! 

If you want your essays to stand out, start writing them sooner rather than later. This process starts by making sure you understand each school’s essay requirements, including any supplemental essays you’ll need to write. You’ll also want to check out the prompts for the Coalition App essays and Coalition App essays, since you’ll likely have to write one of those, too.

Once you know what your essay requirements are, you can start writing! The number one thing to remember about writing college essays is that you want them to be authentic. Tell something that’s true about your life, your identity, or your goals–and make sure you tell it well. With luck, you’ll hook the admissions committee and get them excited about inviting you to join their incoming class!

Of course, if writing college essays was easy, everyone would submit an amazing one. But with help from PrepScholar’s essay coaching and review experts, you can make sure yours is really the cream of the crop. 





What’s Next? 

Before you register for your first SAT/ACT, you need to know the ins and outs of the college admissions season. We’ll walk you through a complete application timeline, plus a complete breakdown of what to focus on each year of high school. 

Once you’ve got a handle on the most important college admissions dates and deadlines, it’s time to decide which test you’ll take: the SAT, the ACT, or both. Our guide to deciding which standardized test is right for you helps you weigh the pros and cons so you can get registered and put your SAT/ACT study plan in motion!

If you’re already got your SAT/ACT plans set, it’s a great idea to start studying now–including taking practice exams. We’ve put together a collection of free, official ACT practice tests and digital SAT practice tests that you can use to get your testing strategy on track!


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