Test Optional and Optional Essay: What Optional Really Means

So far, 2020 has proven to be a year of big changes, and the college admissions process is no different. Some pieces of the application that used to be required are now optional, and what colleges mean by “optional” needs further explanation and clarification.

What “test optional” means

Test optional means just that: it is not mandatory for applicants to submit test scores to be considered for admission. In response to the testing disruptions caused by COVID-19, many colleges and universities have suspended their policy that applicants must submit SAT or ACT results as part of their application.

Eighteen colleges have gone test optional in the last four months. Some schools have waived their standardized test requirement only for applicants seeking to enroll in fall 2021; others waived the requirement for three years (to be followed by an assessment of what they’ll do about tests going forward); and still others made the change permanent. Look at the list of colleges you plan to apply to, and make sure you know which policy each of your schools has adopted. If any of your colleges are test optional, consider the average scores for admitted students (if that college publishes them). If you feel your scores will help your application, send them. If you feel they will hurt your application, don’t send them.

The list of test optional schools can be found at fairtest.org. If you are a client of International College Counselors, your college advisor will help you navigate the policies.

Why take the ACT, SAT, and/or SAT Subject Tests

Be aware that schools with a “test optional” policy are still considering submitted test scores. This means that students who submit strong test scores may have an advantage over students who do not submit them, as reported scores will be factored into the decision-making process. Only if a school explicitly states they have a “test blind” admissions policy (meaning they will not consider test scores even if the applicant submits them), will scores not be factored into the admission decision. There are only a few schools that have “test blind” SAT/ACT admission policies (for example, Northern Illinois University, Loyola of New Orleans, and the University of New Hampshire).

Speaking of “test blind,” several schools, including Cornell, Caltech, MIT, and Harvey Mudd have moved to “test blind” for SAT Subject Tests, meaning they will no longer consider these scores even if an applicant submits them. There are still, however, a number of colleges that still “recommend” or “consider” SAT Subject Test scores (for example, Carnegie Mellon, University of Virginia, Rice, and Northwestern).

In addition, athletes who plan to play at the college level many need an ACT or SAT score to be eligible to compete.

How standardized tests help colleges

Many college admission offices, and many college administrations, though not all, support the use of the SAT or ACT in assessing a student’s college readiness. They claim that the scores are objective, are useful in negating grade inflation, and help identify promising applicants whose high school transcripts do not reflect their potential. They will also tell you that test scores can help a college evaluate an applicant’s academic performance in relation to the rest of the applicant pool, which is applying from thousands of different high schools across the country and around the world.

Scholarships, SAT, and ACT scores

Another reason to take the SAT or ACT is that many colleges offer scholarships to students who have earned a minimum GPA as well as a high SAT/ACT score. These scholarships may range from a few thousand dollars to a “full ride.” Many states also award scholarships to students who meet certain minimum GPA and SAT/ACT requirements. Students who do not take the SAT or ACT may not be eligible for these scholarships.

“Optional” essays which aren’t optional

On the college application, students may see that an essay is “optional.” At International College Counselors, we believe that optional essays are not optional and that students should complete all “optional” essays. Optional essays may help schools differentiate between students with similar qualifications. Writing the optional essay demonstrates that a student has initiative and is serious about attending. In addition, a strong “optional” essay gives the admissions officer more information to consider in their decision.

However, there is at least one exception to the “rule” that optional essays aren’t really optional.  On their application last year, Duke included the following optional prompt: Duke’s commitment to diversity and inclusion includes sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. If you would like to share with us more about how you identify as LGBTQIA+, and have not done so elsewhere in the application, we invite you to do so here. This prompt should only be answered by students who feel that their application would otherwise be missing an integral component of their identity and who feel comfortable sharing this information with the admission committee.

Independent college advisors are a good option

At International College Counselors, we believe in helping students develop holistically. A holistic approach allows a student to demonstrate and spotlight their strengths and best leverage their unique talents and situation. Enable us to expand your student’s options.

Looking to connect with a top SAT or ACT tutor, a college admissions essay expert, or a college advisor who can help your student develop holistically? Contact us. International College Counselors strives to be a strong resource and partner for your family. Even in these unprecedented times, we can enable your student to reach their fullest potential in the college admissions journey. We’re here to help.

For help with any or all parts of the college admissions process or decision making, visit http://www.internationalcollegecounselors.com or call 954-414-9986.