Excerpts from an article by David Blobaum titled “Selectively Test Optional”
At most colleges, students now have the option to submit or not submit SAT and ACT scores when applying. However, the relevant question is not “Can I apply without test scores?” The relevant question is: “Should I apply without test scores?” In every aspect of life, there is a wide gulf between what we can and probably should do. So what should most students do?
Harvard gives the clearest answer of any test-optional college that we have researched. Here is their answer:
What do standardized tests and grades indicate about academic preparation for college?
Standardized tests provide a rough yardstick of what a student has learned over time and how that student might perform academically in college – but they are only one of many factors considered. High school grades in a rigorous academic program can also be helpful in assessing readiness for college courses, but the thousands of secondary schools around the country and the world employ various high school curricula and a wide range of grading systems – and some have no grades at all. Other students have been homeschooled or prepared for college by taking part in multiple schooling opportunities both in person and electronic.
Given the wide variation in how students prepare for Harvard – as well as the fact that most applicants and admitted students have outstanding academic records – it is difficult for high school grades to differentiate individual applications. That does not mean that high school grades are unimportant. Students who come to Harvard have done well day to day in their high school studies, providing a crucial foundation for academic success in college, including a 97% – 98% graduation rate.
SAT and ACT tests are better predictors of Harvard grades than high school grades, but this can vary greatly for any individual. Students who have not attended well-resourced schools throughout their lives, who come from modest economic backgrounds or first-generation college families have generally had fewer opportunities to prepare for standardized tests. Each application to Harvard is read with great care, keeping in mind that talent is everywhere, but opportunity and access are not.
Harvard’s answer is great because it tells us:
- Why SAT and ACT scores might be useful: Given the varied grading and curricula around the country and around the world, a common yardstick by which to measure academic preparedness is likely incredibly useful.
- That SAT and ACT scores actually are useful: While it makes sense that — theoretically — they would be useful, are they actually? Yes. They are the best predictors (even better than high school GPA) of success at Harvard.
- Why make test scores optional then: Some students have less opportunity and access, so those students’ test scores might not be the best predictors of their success at Harvard.
There are some additional applicants who have a decent chance of admission without test scores (though they will need a good GPA and their admission chances will still be improved when combined with test scores above the college’s average): full-pay students applying to a cash strapped college, a legacy applying early decision, family members of the college’s faculty, the children of large donors to the college, etc.
Here’s a good rule of thumb for test optional admissions: Before the college went test optional, would you likely have been admitted to the college if your SAT or ACT was below their middle 50% score range on account of some preferential admissions status (legacy, family member of faculty, athletic recruitment, etc)? If yes, then you can likely get admitted by applying without SAT or ACT scores. If no, then you very likely need to submit test scores that are at or above the bottom of the college’s middle 50% score range in order to have a decent shot at admission. (For example, if the middle 50% of a college’s class averages between a 30 and 34 on the ACT, then a student will need a 30 or above in order for their test score to improve their admission chances to that school.) In short, unless a college is test blind (meaning they wouldn’t look at your score even if you sent it), then they are selectively test optional — i.e. really only test optional for some students.
Why Do Colleges Want Test Scores?
Grades have become increasingly poor predictors of success in college.
In 2019, over two-thirds of students attending a 4-year bachelor’s program at a university had an A+, A, or A- average when they were in high school. That’s not even just students at selective universities but at any university. Here’s an example of just how inflated students’ high school GPAs are: in 2019, 70% of admitted students to UCLA (a highly selective but not even one of the most selective universities) had an unweighted high school GPA of 3.94 or above (out of 4.0). Only 4% had a B+ average or below.¹
It is not possible to stand out in admissions with even a near-perfect high school GPA, especially not to a highly selective college. In such a competitive admissions climate, students are looking for just about any edge. High school GPA — while still incredibly important — is not it.
Looking for an Edge
That edge has to be some combination of other factors to really help a student’s chances of admission to a selective college: an SAT or ACT score above the college’s average, 4’s or preferably 5’s on multiple AP exams, athletic recruitment, exceptional essays and outstanding teacher recommendations, etc. Even if someone tells you they were admitted to a selective college without an SAT or ACT score, you might then want to ask if they submitted any AP exams to the college. They probably did.
Colleges don’t care how they get it, but they want a standardized measure by which to compare applicants, whether that’s an SAT/ACT score or AP exams (and colleges prefer as much information as possible). In fact, the average student at Harvard took 8 AP exams. Eight. So even a student who was admitted “without test scores” probably still submitted numerous AP scores. Why would colleges care about AP exam scores? Because they want to know what percentile a student is scoring in. For example, if a student scores a 5 on the AP Literature exam, that puts them in the top 4.9% of test-takers. That’s incredible, especially considering the caliber of the other students taking that AP exam. A student with a 5 on this exam is very likely in the top 1% of all students in their language proficiency. So, while Harvard still wants you to submit SAT/ACT scores, they wouldn’t care as much if they don’t have your SAT Verbal score if they have your AP Literature and AP Language exam scores or if they don’t have your SAT Math score if they have your AP Calculus BC and AP Physics 1/2 exam scores. But, if you want to gain admission to a selective college (and you don’t have an admissions status that gives you preference over other applicants), then you’re very likely going to need to show at least one standardized score for the college to feel confident that your academic preparedness falls in the percentile of students that they’re looking to admit.
We all want life to be easy. But we also know that often what makes life hard is what allows us to get ahead. By working harder at our sprints, we get faster than the competition. By applying ourselves more than others at work, we get the promotion. When we do the hard work that others will not, that’s when we gain an advantage. Competition for admissions is no different: your hard work will pay off and take away barriers to greater success.
For the full article by David Blobaum, visit https://summitprep.com/selectively-test-optional/