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Why Test-Optional Colleges are Too Good to Be True

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Why Test-Optional Colleges are Too Good to Be True

Not every student tests well. Some excel in completing tests and others struggle with the time constraints and stress, even if they take a college test-prep course or have a tutor. But standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are often one of the key components of a college application, so it would stand to reason that students who struggle would welcome the option of not including test scores in their application.

In the last few years, with the uncertainty of standardized tests and the inconsistency in grading, test-optional colleges have become more appealing to students and their parents.

What are test-optional colleges?

There are more than 850 colleges now who give students that option. FairTest.org provides a list of colleges that are "test optional," "test flexible" or otherwise de-emphasize the use of standardized tests.

These colleges make admissions decisions about substantial numbers of applicants without using the SAT or ACT. Some schools exempt students who meet grade-point average or class rank criteria while others require SAT or ACT scores but use them only for placement purposes or to conduct research studies. It is up to students whether or not they submit their test scores.

What does test-optional really mean?

This may sound too good to be true. It is. Even though colleges may claim to be test-optional, they still use test scores when evaluating applicants. Failure to submit test scores sends up a red flag to colleges.

Jane H. Dane, associate vice president for enrollment management at Old Dominion University in Virginia, whose first test-optional class arrived on campus last year, explained how this works in an article for US News. She noted that “applicants to ODU and elsewhere who don't submit scores will be particularly scrutinized for other evidence of potential for success, like challenging course work and leadership skills. The more well-rounded you are, the better your chances of impressing without scores.”

So test scores – or a lack of them – may still be used to make a decision regarding admission. You should also know that even test-optional colleges may require scores to award merit aid and determine class placement. This will affect your financial aid package and leave you no choice but to submit scores.

Why do colleges provide this option?

This option benefits the college. Instead of spending a large amount of their marketing budgets on recruiting and advertising to boost enrollment, they promote the fact that they are test-optional. After a college promotes their test-optional status, the number of applications increases, according to a Politico report. But, more applications also mean more rejections. If a college can report more rejections, its exclusivity rankings go up.

Colleges did tell Politico, however, that test-optional applications make their applicant pools more diverse.

Should you submit your test scores to test-optional colleges?

Even though colleges tell students submitting scores is optional, it signals the college that the student has something to hide. Colleges typically assume these students have low test scores. If your scores are within range, it’s better to submit the scores than to risk the college making this conclusion.

If a college were entirely test-optional, admissions officers would tell students to not submit their scores under any circumstances. These scores would not be used for admission decisions or financial aid awards. But no college has taken that stand. So, try to do your best on the ACT or SAT, perhaps with the help of a test-prep course, and then use other parts of your college application to sell your strengths.

Test-optional is a great idea in theory, but until colleges truly commit to it and don’t require or ask for test scores, it is too good to be true.

[Looking for more info from the TeenLife Experts? Here's some great SAT advice!]

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Written by Suzanne Shaffer

Suzanne Shaffer counsels parents and students in the college admissions process and the importance of early college preparation. Her Parenting for College blog offers timely college tips for parents and students, as well as providing parents with the resources necessary to help their college-bound teens navigate the college maze.

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