Applying Test-Optional? Here’s What’s Truly NOT Optional!

By: Jason Robinovitz | Last Updated: October 19, 2020

In response to Covid-19 and the ensuing standardized test cancellations throughout the spring, summer, and even into the fall, a greater number of colleges are going “test-optional” for the class of 2021. Some schools have indicated that this policy may extend into next year’s admissions cycle…or beyond. The most up-to-date list of test optional colleges can be found here. A brief perusal shows that schools that have made this decision include elite colleges – all eight Ivies – and other academic powerhouses, such as Georgetown and the entire University of California system. For students unable to take the SAT or ACT this application cycle, the test-optional policy offers some consolation. But, what does this mean for your application? Let’s take a look….

Test-Optional Doesn't Mean Your Test Scores Won't Be Considered

We’ve been saying repeatedly that when a college goes test-optional, that doesn’t mean the school won’t consider your scores. Paradoxically, when schools have gone test-optional in non-pandemic years, not only did the majority of applicants continue to submit scores, but also score averages actually went up! Students submitting test scores have, in fact, sent in higher scores. If your SAT or ACT scores fall within a college’s mid-50% range (easy to find in the US News rankings or by googling “admitted student profile” of the school you’re interested in), especially if they fall in the upper half of this range or higher, submit. There have been many articles written about standardized test scores coupled with high school GPA are together a better predictor of first-year college success than a high school GPA alone.

Furthermore, test-optional doesn’t mean test-blind; that is, it doesn’t mean a school won’t consider your scores at all. (Some examples of test blind schools are The New School in NYC and Catholic University in Washington, DC). All signs point to test scores as another “plus” in your application. If you can safely test and get the scores you need, go ahead and submit!

Make Your Application Stand Out – With or Without Test Scores

If you’re unable to test, however, how will you make your application stand out? It begins by understanding how colleges look at your application. First and foremost, they will look at course rigor and academic performance. Senior year is not the time to slack off! We trust that you’re taking a full schedule of core classes (English, math, science, social sciences, and foreign language) at the highest-level you can comfortably manage. If not, it’s never to late to add an extra core academic course to Craft your college application essays carefullyyour schedule, especially if it’s AP and online! Review your activities list and craft a descriptive, insightful résumé based around your most meaningful involvements in and out of school, highlighting leadership and initiative. Your résumé and activity descriptions are a great way to market yourself to a college, showing how you’ll eventually have a positive impact on your campus community. And don’t forget your essays. Most colleges require the personal essay, and many schools ask for additional “supplemental” essays. Not only should these essays be carefully written and free from errors, but they should also offer an engaging narrative and express your unique voice. Admissions counselors will often comment on the most memorable essays they’ve ever read, and these aren’t about winning a state championship! Find a topic that’s truly yours, a story that no one else could write. That will help your application stand out. When writing the supplemental essays, continue to apply an engaging writing style and “voice.” Writing a Why This College? essay? Make sure to highlight your match for the university in very specific terms, and how you’ll contribute to the student body.

Not every school accepts letters of recommendations (most of Florida’s state universities do not), but for those that do, make sure you seek out recommenders who will write you strong, anecdotal recommendations. To make sure they craft a glowing letter, spend time with your recommenders reviewing the ways in which you grew as a student and also contributed to your classmates’ learning experience. A well-written letter of recommendation can provide further insight and context, adding another meaningful dimension to a test-optional application.

Should You Opt to Apply Test-Optional?

Last, there’s a conundrum facing many students: what if I have test scores and scheduled future test dates – do I opt for test-optional or not? Indeed, many universities are asking this question on their applications, forcing students to make a decision and often without the option to change their minds. A few tips: as noted above, if your scores fall within the mid-50% range, preferably on the higher end, submit. If your scores are below this range, and you have no future tests scheduled, perhaps selecting test-optional is the better choice. What if your scores are below the mid-50%, but you have future test scheduled? Consider waiting until you get back at least one more set of scores before deciding – if you have time before the application is due. Prepare all other parts of the application so it’s ready to go. And, when in doubt, call the school and ask about its test-optional policy to find out if you can change your mind after submitting an application.

Need help in making your test-optional application stand out? Reach out to a JRA Educational Consulting location near you. Our college counseling team specializes in helping students determine all their options throughout the college application cycle – and stand out in the applicant pool. Test scores or no, you’ll still JRA Educational Consulting!

Topics: College Admission ACT/SAT Test Optional


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