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Test-Optional Admissions: What Does it Mean?

If you’ve been in the college counseling profession for even a short time, you know many uncertainties and debate surround standardized tests, particularly, the ACT and SAT. Questions about terminology—superscoring, concordance, and subscores—what do they all mean? Other questions are philosophical—how are scores used, do they help predict college success, and do they disadvantage students of color and first-generation college-bound students?  

In response to the philosophical, test-optional admission has become a frequent conversation and campuses across the nation have adopted a test-optional policy, at least for admission. 

 Now, we have entered into a COVID-19 reality, which has caused the cancellation of spring ACT and SAT exams. This also caused uncertainty about when testing will resume, and if fall admission application deadlines will be impacted. Consequently, colleges and universities across the country have announced that they will not require students to submit a test score for admission.

According to FairTest, The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, approximately 1,200 institutions will not require a test score for students applying for 2021 admission. Western Michigan University is among them, as are other Michigan higher education institutions, according to a recent survey conducted and published by the Michigan College Access Network (MCAN). It’s nearly certain that more will join these ranks. 

How test-optional is implemented varies by institution. Some are test-blind, meaning that if a student submits an ACT/SAT, it won’t be considered. Others will use the score only if it advantages a student; requiring it for students applying to specific majors or programs; scholarship considerations; or have GPAs below certain thresholds. Regardless, at the root, test-optional means that students get to decide. If they have the option and believe their score will make their application file stronger, submit it; otherwise, don’t. In my opinion, if an ACT/SAT is at or above the middle-50% of scores for a college of high interest, then go ahead and submit the score.

Without a test score, admission decisions typically become more holistic. A heavier emphasis is placed on GPA, rigor of curriculum, grade trend, and other items in the application such as essays, recommendations, and how a student spends their time outside the classroom.

For this reason, I share a few insights with my high school colleagues—items that provide application readers with context and will, ultimately, help your students: 

  • Create a strong school profile and include it with every transcript. Stumped on how to start? The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) provides best practices and examples on their website.
  • Your honest and insightful recommendations are invaluable. Truly.
  • If a student has any change in progression or grade trend, encourage them to include an explanation in their application.

On the college side, I promise that we use these items. They are especially helpful for students who are on the bubble.

Only time will tell how many colleges keep test-optional policies beyond the coming cycle. Some have indicated they will; others (like WMU) are using this year as a pilot as we explore options of a more permanent policy, while others have said this is one-year-only. What I can say—at least with all the confidence and certainty that a director of admissions can have right now is that we can’t look back. “Normal” as we knew it doesn’t exist anymore and we would be naïve to think it could. I see this as an exciting frontier with a range of possibilities. It’s up to us, collectively, to make sure we seek and implement paths that reflect the core of our mission as educators. 

Short Description

In this blog, WMU Director of Admissions Alicia Kornowa discusses test-optional practices related to admission to college.