Test Optional universities: What you need to know

Test Optional universities: What you need to know

With the recent turmoil in college admissions due to the COVID-19 crisis, many universities have updated their Standardized Testing policies on a temporary basis, joining a steadily increasing list of universities with Test Optional and Test Flexible admissions standards. What this means is that they allow students to not submit the SAT or ACT test scores, and still be considered for admission. While this may sound like it relieves one burden from students, in our experience as U.S. college admissions consultants in Hong Kong, so-called “optional” parts of an application shouldn’t be taken at face value!

It’s important for our students to understand the implications that each choice in their college applications can have, and that includes whether to submit standardized test scores, even when they’re optional. Here are four facts about Test Optional policies that you need to know:

1. More and more universities have been going test optional and have been for years. But this is a trend that’s limited to certain kinds of universities

Test Optional universities are not a new trend. Prior to 2020, the US already had over 1200 four-year colleges and universities with Test Optional policies. With research showing that there are better indicators for college readiness, namely high school GPA and class rank, universities interested in gaining a wider applicant pool choose to remove SAT and ACT requirements, allowing more students to apply. This is especially true for liberal arts colleges, which are often academically as rigorous as more well-known universities, but don’t have the recruitment reach of the big names. 

So what does that mean for popular universities with applicant numbers in the hundreds of thousands like UCLA, or hypercompetitive universities with single-digit acceptance rates like MIT? These universities don’t worry about finding enough applicants, and have resisted this change, because the SATs and ACTs still give them one more data point to differentiate the outstanding from the merely excellent.

2. Test optional policies are designed to increase accessibility and diversity, not so students can hide bad scores

When the University of Chicago announced in 2018 that it would be adopting a Test Optional policy, the news made waves – it was the highest-ranked university at #3 in the US to announce that it would no longer be requiring either the SAT or ACT. Here in Hong Kong, many students decided that that would be the perfect chance to apply – but were promptly rejected despite having strong applications besides a lack of standardized test scores. With the admissions adage that “optional is never truly optional,” it’s important to note that universities often promote Test Optional policies to specifically engage with underprivileged and first-generation college students, who don’t have the resources to even take these tests. At UChicago, this was done as part of their Empower Initiative, which was set up to “increase access to UChicago by expanding access for first-generation and rural students.”

For international students, especially in a competitive and relatively wealthy place like Hong Kong, students need to ask themselves whether they are the target audience for these initiatives. And if not, imagine what it looks like from the college’s perspective – it’s like a successful CEO walking into a food bank for a free meal! Understanding a university’s institutional needs and initiatives helps students match themselves to what their dream university wants, improving their chances of getting in.

3. Standardized test policies are used strategically by universities to play the rankings game

While it’s commonly said that the top few universities such as HYPSM (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT) can choose any student they want in the world, the truth is that universities in the US are constantly competing amongst themselves for the best candidates. While Test Optional policies do serve to promote diversity by reaching out to new applicant pools, they also allow universities to rise in the rankings by becoming “more selective” – with more applicants, the universities can reject more candidates, a key component of the popular US News & World Report rankings. At UChicago again, applicants rose from 31,484 applicants in 2018 before the test policy change, to 34,648 just one year late – a nearly 10% rise in the number of candidates. This led to their acceptance rate dropping from 7.9% to only 6.2%, making it one among the most selective universities in the nation. 

What this means for our students is that they need to assess whether they are a genuine fit for the university, and not blindly attempt to apply for universities that are out of reach, only to be rejected out of hand. This is especially true for the popular universities with test optional policies, as they attract many candidates, many of whom will have strong test scores!

4. The SAT and ACT is a standard for comparison between high schools in different countries

For students in Hong Kong and other countries, the SAT and ACT can be an important equalizer when admissions officers are unfamiliar with the local curriculum. This is especially true for our students in Hong Kong, where there are several different school curriculums on the market (and sometimes even within the same school), and especially because grading standards within a school can be very different. Taking the SAT or ACT, even when it’s not strictly required, gives students more corroborating evidence that their grades are competitive.

Quantum Prep is an education consultancy that focuses on placing their students at the best colleges or universities. We boast of diverse results. In addition to the traditional rap sheet of prestigious university acceptances, our consultants like to highlight the different paths they have sent students on. All of our students are different; we are proud of our one-on-one tailored approach towards university counselling. Submit your information for a complimentary 30-minute initial meeting, where you can get tailored individualized advice on how to put your best foot forward. 

By Conrad Yu, Director of Development

Published 29-05-2020

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