College & Workforce Readiness Q&A

A College Admissions Expert Explains What Going Test-Optional Means for High School Seniors

By Elizabeth Heubeck — January 09, 2023 5 min read
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College admissions season is in full swing, with hundreds of thousands of high school seniors either painstakingly completing college applications or waiting anxiously to hear whether they’ve been accepted.

A handful of years ago, the SAT or ACT test was considered a central piece of college admissions. The test-taking process was both a rite of passage for high school students and a source of dread and angst—particularly among those striving for admittance to highly selective colleges and universities, many of which suggested or outright required a minimum score for applicants to be considered.

But that’s no longer the case across the board.

When the pandemic hit, limiting access to test-taking sites, most colleges and universities dropped their SAT/ACT submission requirements for the 2021-22 admissions cycle, according to The National Center for Fair & Open Testing. Since then, hundreds of colleges and universities have extended their test-optional policies for the subsequent admissions cycle, and, in some cases, longer. Harvard applicants through the class of 2030 can omit test scores. Applicants to other selective universities, such as the University of California, are permanently phasing out exam requirements.

For insight into the shift away from standardized test scores in college admissions and what it means for aspiring college goers in high school, Education Week spoke to Vern Granger, the director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Connecticut and board chair of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Last summer, the university announced plans to extend for three more years a pilot program that allowed undergraduate applicants to apply “test-optional.”

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Talk about the timing of that decision, and how much of an effect the pandemic school shutdowns had on it.

We were having internal conversations [about going test-optional] prior to the pandemic. We were thinking about the composition of the applicant pool, how to make it more diverse while making sure we wouldn’t be losing anything from a student success perspective. The pandemic was the final piece that made us want to adopt the pilot.

Prior to going test-optional, how much weight did the university give to an applicant’s SAT or ACT score?

We’ve had a holistic evaluation for many years. We never based our decision on one factor, nor did the scores get an oversized amount of weight. We looked at it all in totality.

We look at the academic record, the profile of the courses a student is taking, the essay, letters of recommendation, extracurricular involvement, and interests. All of these things are considered.

What has the pilot taught you so far?

It’s done what we had hoped it would. We’re seeing a more diverse applicant pool—an increase in African American students who apply, and Hispanic/Latinx students. As our applications from African American and Hispanic/Latinx students have increased, we’ve also experienced growth in enrollment of these populations. And we haven’t seen any drops in our student performance. So for us, it’s been positive.

Vern Granger

I would suspect that you frequently get asked the question: Since the application is test-optional, when should a student submit test scores? What is your response?

Our rule of thumb is this: As guidance, we publish information on the scores of our middle 50 percent of applicants who enrolled in the university. If applicants’ scores are within this range, they may want to consider including them. But only if they feel the test is an accurate representation of their ability and something they’d like the university to evaluate. If they choose not to submit them, they’re not going to be disadvantaged.

You say students who don’t submit test scores won’t be disadvantaged. What is the advantage of choosing not to submit scores?

We know that the [SAT or ACT] test, for some students, has created anxiety, and has caused them to self-select out of applying to an institution. One of the reasons we made the decision to go test-optional is that it provides students the ability to decide if they feel the test is an accurate reflection of their academic ability. About 60 percent of our students choose not to submit a test score.

How does the test-optional decision reflect the broader direction that the university is taking?

Diversity is one of the strategic pillars of the institution; it’s very important to the learning experience of all students at the university. As you think about the [college] life cycle, it starts with the students we’re admitting and it continues with making sure we’re providing infrastructure to make sure those students who enroll are successful. We’re having these conversations: How can we serve our students in the best possible way? How are we advising students? What early intervention opportunities do we have? What strategies can we put in place for struggling students? What other programs can we put in place at the macro level to make sure we’re supporting students?

What is your message to high school-based college counselors and educators wanting to know how best to support today’s students during their time in high school, and in preparing for college?

We want to reduce the anxiety that students are facing. Test-optional is just one way to reduce anxiety for some students who feel that their scores will prohibit them from gaining admittance. We talk about rigor, but by no means are we telling a student that they need to have 10 AP [Advanced Placement] courses. They don’t have to overdo it and create undue pressure on themselves.

Learning opportunities, growing opportunities, networking opportunities—these should be the focus of students’ high school experience. If they’re doing those things, they’re going to ultimately prepare themselves as best as possible for being successful at a college or university. Those are the things that they have control over.

As they relate to the college admissions process, what are some of the things over which students don’t have control?

The admission process is not designed to give validation or confirmation that a student can be successful at an institution. There are tons of students who are applying [who] we know could be successful, but there are also factors that prevent a university from accepting them: capacity, for one; mission of the university; admission priorities.

To those students who will not get into the college of their dreams, what advice do you have for them?

Most universities have different pathways for entrance. As a first-year student, these pathways may not be available to them. But there are also transfer opportunities. Also, I’m a firm believer that there’s not only one institution that’s the sole, perfect fit for a student. I believe that there are many universities out there that can meet a student’s needs. I encourage students to be open and thoughtful about how they’re looking at institutions. Don’t be swayed by the name brand, or those that get all the attention. If students are open-minded and control the things that they have control over, they should let the process take care of itself.

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