What does “test-optional” really mean?

by | Jul 11, 2021

Written By: Christopher Hamilton

Although college admissions tend to get tougher every year–more applicants, but the same limited number of spots at the most desirable colleges–this past year has been a particularly challenging one for students like ours.  Although we are happy to share that we had many acceptances to top universities, the challenges for our students were significant.  Because we’ve received a number of questions regarding standardized testing and the “test-optional” policy, we think it’s very important to share our perspective and insights on the matter.  The most common inquiries have been: 

  • Is the SAT/ACT still relevant? 
  • How important is standardized testing currently for university admissions? 
  • Aren’t the UCs stepping away from using standardized tests? 
  • Haven’t most colleges moved to a “test-optional” policy?

The short answer is, testing is not only relevant, but necessary for a competitive advantage in college admissions. 

Here are some reasons…

There is simply no fair way to admit students solely by GPA.
If you attend a highly competitive high school (such as Westview, CCA, and Del Norte), the meaning of your GPA will be very different than similar students at less competitive high schools.In other words, it is harder to obtain a high GPA at a competitive school, and your GPA may not be an accurate reflection of your performance. The SAT/ACT have long been a standardized measure of performance used by admissions officers with the understanding that GPA can vary widely across schools.  

“Test-optional” doesn’t quite mean what it sounds like.
From the words of a Director of Admissions at an IVY League campus, “If you are not an under-represented minority…the tests are not optional.” He went on to say, We simply have too many valedictorians and perfect GPAs to admit based only on grades.”

It is not going to be easier to get into top American universities; in fact, it is getting harder.  Applications to some Ivy League campuses shot up nearly 50% last year,because Covid-19 rendered many campuses “test-optional.” Harvard has released their acceptance rates for this year, which was 3.4%. More than 53,000+ students applied to UCLA last year with perfect grades; this year that number may be closer to 70,000. UCLA’s first-year class has room for only 6,000 students.

The PSAT remains the test that qualifies students for the National Merit Scholarships. 
Every year, many of Hamilton’s students qualify as National Merit Scholars with a PSAT score in the 98th percentile. These students are recipients of very generous scholarships, including a 50% reduction in tuition at USC.

While a number of school have implemented a test-optional policy, we still don’t know what the application process will look like in 2+ years.
While it’s true that a number of schools have announced moving away from standardized tests, these changes are very recent. Given current conditions caused by the pandemic, we will likely see many changes in the coming years, particularly regarding testing policies. 

COVID-19 has redefined the meaning of testing and college admissions for all of us. While our students who did well this past admissions season had a wide range of experiences and interests, they largely had one thing in common: their stellar test scores. As far as I’m aware, every single one of our Ivy acceptances submitted SAT or ACT scores this year. This 2020-2021 application season may be the single-most challenging year to apply to university in the history of the United States. While we think it’s important for our families to understand this new landscape, we also want to assure families that we’re here to help. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact our office and we’d be happy to assist.