While test-optional admissions has always been a reality for some college applicants, the current prevalence of this policy introduces an awful lot of uncertainty into already anxiety-provoking process. In previous years, students whose test scores didn’t meet a school’s stated standards often turned their attention elsewhere. These days, more and more students choose to roll the dice by applying without scores–to their detriment.
The media has been promoting a story that the last year of expanded college admissions, where more students than ever representing more diverse backgrounds and socioeconomic strata than ever have applied to highly selective schools, represents a triumph of test optional policies. Yet, that narrative remains misleading without data on which students were accepted. We don’t have all the numbers, but professionals I trust on the admissions side have estimated that 85-90% of accepted students to most test optional schools over the past five years sent scores, while only 10-15% of accepted students did not. Jeff Selingo, one of the most respected writers in the higher ed space today (who I interviewed on the topic of Shaping an Admissions Class), shared some quantitative insights of his own:
So, if we accept that students who submit the right test scores improve (sometimes double) their chances of admission at selective schools, the obvious next question comes down to which are the right scores. Start by looking at the 25th-75th percentile score range of the previous year’s incoming class at a given school. This score range, called the mid-50, helps establish a general benchmark, in that most applicants should seek to submit scores within, if not exceeding, that range. Yes, a number of applicants are accepted with lower scores each year, but those are usually the students that stand out in other ways or help meet institutional priorities. High schoolers hoping to win admission on the strength of their academic record usually need test scores to put what should be exceptional grades in context.
Submitting scores that meet the mid-50 range of a selected school should benefit most applicants to test optional schools. But what if the test scores fall below that 25th percentile mark? All is not necessarily lost. In those instances, applicants might consider calling a school’s admissions office to ask about their specific situations. Many college reps say that their advisors will help students determine whether certain test scores would help or hinder admissions in light of their total application. Don’t be afraid to reach out.
These are difficult days to be applying to selective schools. Many of the most exclusive schools have seen their admit rates plummet during the test optional era, as applications doubled while available seats remained static. As more data comes out, though, we see that some of those applicants had better chances at admission than others. As ever, the advantage accrues to those whose scores are as strong as the rest of their application. When it comes to admission to highly selective schools, no part of the application is truly optional.