Hidden Danger Ahead! Attention, Students Who Want to Apply to Test-Optional Colleges!

Last Updated: Jul 6, 2020 1:13:19 PM

green, red, and white high voltage circuit breakerColleges are businesses, and they like to get lots of admission applications because that makes it easier to fill classes with in-coming students. One way that a college can increase its number of applicants is by improving its ranking in the annual US News College Rankings.

In fact, a study published on the Harvard Business School’s blog found that “When explicit rankings of colleges are published in U.S. News, a one-rank improvement leads to a 1-percentage-point increase in the number of applications to that college.”

Important post-it noteClearly, colleges have an incentive – in fact, they have more than one incentive (see below) – to improve their position in the US News ranking. 

So what?

Until now, US News hasn’t ranked colleges that didn’t use SAT or ACT scores at all in admissions decisions for freshmen applicants. The data from those “scoreless” schools are listed separately at the bottom of the rankings, so that students can access their information as they conduct their research. But that’s going to change with the September 2020 rankings: these “scoreless” schools will be ranked.

And there’s also US News’ 75% rule: A college's overall ACT or SAT mid-50% score range is discounted by 15 percent in the ranking calculations if less than 75% of its entering class submits ACT or SAT scores.

Students working closely with one anotherThat, in turn, incentivizes colleges to admit students who submit ACT or SAT scores, which, peripherally, almost has to disadvantage students who don’t submit scores: If all other things are equal between two applicants, colleges would be shooting themselves in the foot if they didn’t favor the student who submits an SAT/ACT score.


Graph showing upward trajectoryFurther, the study published in the Harvard Business School blog presents yet another reason for colleges to improve their US News rank by favoring SAT/ACT score submitters: “Since rankings affect applications, colleges have an incentive to improve their rank. Moreover, improved rankings increase applications, which lowers acceptance rates and, in turn, improves rankings.” In short, an improved ranking for a college is a self-reinforcing phenomenon that results in a continual feedback loop.

Our point: Deciding not to submit an SAT/ACT score to a “test-optional” school can be a mistake. You improve your chances of admission when you submit competitive test scores – at or above the midpoint of their published mid-50% score range, so register for this fall’s tests, which have a higher likelihood of taking place as schools re-open.

Topics: ACT/SAT College Counseling Test Optional


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