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Are “test-optional” schools easier to get into?

Sep 26, 2018

This summer the University of Chicago became the most selective university to make the submission of SAT or ACT scores optional for applicants hoping to matriculate as undergraduates. This move has prompted a flurry of speculation and inquiries from students and parents, many of whom think that this policy will profoundly change the game–particularly for applicants with suboptimal scores.

Spoiler alert: it won’t.

While most of these test-optional policies are too young for there to be a backlog of helpful data indicating what exactly they mean, it’s pretty safe to say that standardized test scores will not simply become irrelevant to these institutions overnight.

To see why, look at the issue from the universities’ perspective. By going test-optional, a school will almost certainly guarantee that their application numbers will go up. If more candidates think that they have a shot at UChicago because they won’t have to report mediocre test scores, then these students will apply in droves but ignore elite peer schools that still require score submissions. This is ultimately nothing but good news for UChicago, who can (if they so choose) still admit the same 1600-scoring students while jumping in the US News & World Report rankings (one of the factors that determines a school’s placement on the list is the sheer volume of applications they receive).

In order to keep up, it’s likely that we will see comparable schools also drop the testing requirement. It’s also likely that these institutions will keep up the standard rhetoric regarding why they are doing so, pointing to an inequitable testing industry that rewards already privileged students and expressing a desire to see applicants “beyond the numbers.”

While we want to believe that schools are going test-optional because they have students’ best interests at heart and want to help even the playing field, we have to keep in mind that even elite universities are businesses. Any move that will strategically increase the number of applications a school receives come winter should be looked at with a healthy dose of skepticism.

In short, don’t be tempted by substance-less claims. One of the key components of a strong application is outstanding standardized test scores, and that did not change when U Chicago dropped the ACT/SAT requirement. If you want a solid shot at a top tier school, take the tests, and score well. Despite what admissions officers might want you to believe, they’ll be happy you did.


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