Inside the “Test Option” Opportunity

Do you know why the SAT exists today?

The answer might surprise you. Over its long history, the SAT has served many purposes, including that of “leveling the playing field” through a standardized test that presumed to reconcile the great disparities that exist among high school academic programs across the country.

In its current iteration, however, the test’s intended purpose is that of a diagnostic assessment that helps admission officers predict the ability of applicants to perform academically during the first year of college. It is not an intelligence test, nor does it predict the likelihood of graduation.

Within this context—as a diagnostic test forecasting first-year success—it holds little value. What’s more, admission officers seem to recognize this. They regularly conduct validity studies to determine the value of different variables (courses, grades, GPA, letters of recommendation, essays, etc.) and these studies routinely reveal that the SAT has only a marginal impact on their predictive models. In short, they know they can make good decisions about whom to admit without the presence of SAT results.

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So, why, then, do so many colleges and universities insist that you submit test results?

Some institutions with great volumes of applicants (state universities, highly selective schools) use test results along with GPAs to screen candidates. In effect, test scores in those cases are competitive credentials. Achieving the minimum score on a given school’s “scale of acceptability” is less a demonstration that you can do the work, and more an indication that you have hit that school’s rather arbitrary cutoff for consideration in the admission process.

And, at the end of the day, institutions use the SAT to project the strength of their entering classes. Intimating that the SAT is a universal metric for intelligence, they seem to be saying, “Look at all these smart students we have managed to enroll.” As a result, colleges seek to attract candidates with “big numbers”—and, far from the diagnostic it is intended to be, the SAT becomes a competitive credential.

The good news is that more than 850 colleges are test optional. In doing so, they have acknowledged that they can make good decisions about whom to admit without test results. To see a complete, alphabetized list of these schools, go to

When I made reference to the “test optional” opportunity that exists at a growing number of schools during a presentation earlier this week, a student asked, somewhat incredulously, “Won’t colleges assume that if you don’t submit scores you are trying to hide low results?” I offer two observations from personal experience in response to questions like this.

One, the removal of the testing requirement in light of their confidence in other predictive factors frees admission officers to focus their deliberations on the personal strengths and attributes of the student without concern for how a score might affect their institutions’ academic profiles. The day my former institution went test optional in the admission process was a day of liberation for my colleagues and me. Free from the “tyranny of numbers,” we were able to admit the students who were most interesting to us.

Two, there tends to be very little difference between the test performance of “submitters” and “non-submitters.” Subsequent studies of the two groups at my institution revealed that average scores for the two groups were nearly identical. In fact, we discovered quite a few students who had withheld high scores, presumably, because they were philosophically aligned with the “test optional” policy.

Did we admit kids who benefited by not having to submit substandard scores? Sure—because they produced compelling coursework and supporting documentation that gave us confidence that they could do the work in our environment. And most did very well in college and in life after school. Similarly, we admitted more than a few students over the years with high scores, but relatively modest high school records who did not find the same success.

I have also heard the assertion that “test optional” schools are simply using the option as a marketing ploy to attract applicants and raise their scores (because low scores are no longer reported). While those might be natural outcomes that fall to such schools, it is my experience that the rationale for going “test optional” runs much deeper. Many schools with test requirements tend to admit students whose test results match or enhance their respective testing profiles. In the process, they tend to arbitrarily dismiss candidates who are otherwise very compelling but whose scores would “hurt the profile.” Making the test optional allows for a broader assessment of the candidate’s credentials.

The bottom line:

If testing is not your thing or you are philosophically opposed to its place in the admission process, you should feel more than comfortable exploring the 850 colleges and universities that have made the submission of tests optional. They have defined a different paradigm for decision-making that, quite frankly, is student-centered. And that’s a good thing! On the other hand, if you are applying to schools that do require the test, make sure you prepare for it and score your best!

Written by Peter Van Buskirk, Director of Student Advocacy

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