Navigating Test-Optional Admissions Amid COVID-19

When the novel coronavirus began to spread throughout the U.S., it upended numerous facets of higher education such as in-person instruction, the college admissions cycle and entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT.

Test-makers canceled previously planned sessions of the ACT and SAT and shifted those exams to later dates, though many of those sessions had to be scrapped due to pandemic-related concerns. In response, many colleges reacted to the pandemic by removing testing requirements for applicants and announcing test-optional pilot programs, with their length varying by school.

“I think it is a good thing for students, but it does require students to work a little bit harder, and to learn what these different policies might mean for them,” says Ginger Fay, director of independent educational consultant engagement at Applerouth Tutoring Services in Atlanta.

Since the pandemic hit, the number of colleges requiring the ACT and SAT has dramatically decreased, notes Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest, which has long fought to reduce the role of standardized testing in college admissions.

“Pre-pandemic there were 1,070 schools that were test-optional — one of whom was test-blind. Now there are 1,686, including 68 that are test-blind for fall 2021,” Schaeffer says.

[Read: What to Know About Applying to Test-Optional Colleges.]

Testing organizations have acknowledged the importance of flexibility in these tumultuous times.

“ACT respects the right of every college to determine its own admission policies, particularly in the midst of a crisis such as COVID-19 where flexibility and managing disruption is paramount,” reads part of an ACT statement in May on testing changes. The ACT did not respond to a request for comment from U.S. News about more recent developments in college admissions testing policies.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, provided a statement to U.S. News that acknowledged the changing nature of testing policies.

“Colleges are rightfully emphasizing flexibility for the admissions process for this cycle; in the longer term as the admissions process is able to stabilize post-Covid-19, we will support our higher ed members as they implement permanent policies,” part of the statement reads.

It adds: “The College Board’s mission isn’t to ensure all colleges require the SAT, it’s to expand access to college for more students and help them succeed when they get there. Whether required for admission or not, SAT scores help colleges create data-driven programs to ensure admitted students get the supports they need to graduate.”

What Test-Optional Means for Students

Simply defined, test-optional means students are not required to submit standardized test scores on their college admissions application. Whether to do so is up to the student.

Jed Applerouth, founder and president of Applerouth Tutoring Services, says removing testing from consideration shifts the emphasis to elsewhere on a college application. “If we pull this piece out, other ones are going to be magnified,” he says.

Schaeffer sees going test-optional as a way to shift the emphasis to a student’s high school experience.

“For teenagers, you know you’ll be judged as more than a score,” Schaeffer says. “What you’ve done in your classes over several years in high school will mean more than how well you filled in bubbles on a Saturday morning.”

But Applerouth suggests that how well a student filled out those bubbles will still have an impact. Going test-optional doesn’t mean that a college won’t look at scores, but just that it doesn’t require them.

“Students who do have strong scores are probably going to stand out a little more in this year,” he says. In a pool of candidates lacking scores, an applicant with strong results will stand out because that is another factor for colleges to consider.

[Read: ACT vs. SAT: How to Decide Which Test to Take.]

At the same time, going test-optional can also help those who didn’t fare well on the ACT or SAT.

Removing that element forces colleges to consider other factors, both qualitative and quantitative. Colleges will look at GPA, grade trends and the rigor of a student’s high school curriculum alongside letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, admissions interviews and other factors that will be elevated without test scores to consider, some experts say.

While colleges already consider these elements, they grow in importance in the absence of standardized test scores.

“Colleges, as they review a student’s profile, just have to look for clues from other parts of the application,” Fay says.

But a question that looms large is: Does test-optional really mean test-optional? Or will colleges still pressure students to submit ACT or SAT scores as part of their application? The answer may depend on the college.

“Some colleges have been asking students who are not submitting test scores why they are not submitting, and that is not a genuinely test-optional program,” Fay says. “Because you’re holding it against a student if they have scores that they’re holding back, versus a student who genuinely was not able to test.”

To assure students that test-optional policies really are in place, more than 500 colleges signed a statement in August from the National Association for College Admission Counseling to confirm their commitment to these policies. Signatories to the statement can be found on the NACAC website.

What Test-Optional Means for Colleges

Admissions experts suggest that going test-optional can benefit colleges and students alike. For example, Fay says colleges that go test-optional tend to receive more applications overall and form a more diverse class of candidates.

Colleges going test-optional are no longer outliers. It’s becoming an increasingly popular position, Schaeffer observes. Public schools in Florida are among a minority of highly ranked colleges that have not shifted to test-optional, a decision that is up to the state’s Board of Governors, he notes.

Some colleges were already reconsidering testing policies when the pandemic hit U.S. shores.

The University of California system, which comprises 10 campuses including the prestigious University of California–Los Angeles and University of California–Berkeley, announced in March that it would go test-optional for students applying for fall 2021 admission due to the coronavirus pandemic. A later court ruling in September barred the system from considering the ACT or SAT in admissions decisions this cycle, noting that many students were unable to access the exams, and essentially shifting those colleges to test-blind status.

But big changes in the UC system were already underway before the court ruling came down.

In May, a new plan approved by the Board of Regents extended the test-optional policy through 2022. In addition, the entire UC system suspended the standardized test requirement for in-state applicants in fall 2023 and fall 2024, and the ACT or SAT test requirement will be eliminated beginning in 2025 if those tests are not replaced by a new test the system is considering developing.

“Going test-optional has never meant schools are test-blind,” Applerouth explains. “Test-blind is a very different thing.”

Test-blind means that colleges won’t look at scores even if a student submits them. Students should check application requirements at their target schools to understand the testing policy of each.

[Read: How the Coronavirus Affects College Admissions.]

“Look very carefully at the admissions website,” Schaeffer advises.

As of publication, the next test dates for the ACT and SAT are scheduled for February and March, respectively.

However, a predicted winter surge in COVID-19 cases may cause more canceled test sessions, Applerouth says.

“We don’t know exactly how lockdowns are going to affect testing in the next couple of months, but the juniors have time. The runway is pretty long for them,” Applerouth says. “The question is, how will testing be affected for the February SAT, or for the March ACT? My sense is that there is going to be uncertainty.”

Whether testing will be required at various colleges should become clearer in the spring, experts say.

“We’re expecting that most schools are going to be announcing (testing policies) in the spring and beyond,” Applerouth says. “For most of them, the smart move is to just hold to whatever this year’s policy was.”

While some schools are in a one-year test-optional pilot program, others opted for longer trial runs. As they decide on how to move forward, colleges will take a hard look at how students who applied without test scores stack up academically against peers who submitted the results of admissions exams, Schaeffer says.

“They’re also going to be evaluating basic demographics, how their applicant pools changed from previous years, the differences between submitters who included test scores, and those who do not,” he says.

Applerouth adds that if colleges “can build the class and it turns out that there really aren’t substantial differences, then the majority of programs who are test-optional will remain test-optional.”

Why Students May Want to Consider Taking College Entrance Exams

Admissions experts, testing organizations and even some skeptics agree — it still makes sense to take the ACT or SAT.

“When they can safely test, even in a test-optional world, it behooves the student to see where their test scores hit,” Fay says.

If the outcome is positive, a student can move forward knowing that standardized testing can be a strong part of his or her profile, she says. If not, a student can try to retake the exam for a better score or omit the results on test-optional applications.

It may make sense to send scores to one college but not another, depending on how a prospective student stacks up to other applicants based on their results. Applicants can check college websites to see statistics, including test scores, of previously admitted classes.

Even as the test-optional movement surges, testing critics acknowledge that it may make sense for applicants to take the ACT and SAT. “They could opt out if they want. There are plenty of colleges now that are test-optional and you don’t need to play the game,” Schaeffer says.

But, he adds, that decision can become more complicated depending on how many schools a student applies to, given the likely variance in testing policies.

“The odds are that one of the schools on that list will probably still require a test.”

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Navigating Test-Optional Admissions Amid COVID-19 originally appeared on

Update 06/03/20: This article has been updated to remove a reference to taking standardized tests at home. Earlier, on May 26, 2020, this article was updated to reflect new developments in the University of California system’s testing policies.

Update 12/18/20: This article has been updated with new information.

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