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The True Meaning of Test-Optional and Test-Blind Admissions

NewsCarly Taylor

In 2020 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented high school students from gathering in person to take the ACT or SAT. This led more than 1800 U.S. colleges to change their admissions process to test-optional for the 2020-21 application cycle, meaning students did not have to submit ACT or SAT scores to have their applications considered.

Even though in-person standardized testing has resumed, many schools have retained these test-optional policies. All eight Ivy league schools, Stanford, and many other top research universities remain test-optional for the 2022-23 application cycle.

But what does this really mean for high school students who may now be debating whether to submit their scores or bother taking these tests at all?


Incentives for colleges to remain test-optional


Universities have two major motives retaining their COVID era test-optional policies into the future – increasing the diversity of their admitted classes and ensuring they see ever-increasing numbers of applicants.

Test-optional admissions make college applications more accessible by attracting more applications from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds and marginalized communities. There are students with strong aptitudes who may not have even considered applying to certain colleges because they could not afford to take the ACT or SAT or could not afford the testing bootcamps and multiple attempts often required to achieve excellent scores on these tests. Now, knowing that they do not have to submit any test scores, diverse candidates from low income backgrounds are applying to top colleges at higher rates.

The resulting increase in diversity makes universities more vibrant, inclusive, innovative institutions. At the same time, top colleges are incentivized to attract as many applicants as possible simply so that they can continually shrink their acceptance rate. By allowing candidates to apply without test scores, they can increase their number of applications, even if they don’t actually accept very many of these applicants who don’t submit scores.


Test-optional vs. test-blind


Most universities describe themselves as test-optional, but a handful use the term test-blind. So what’s the difference?

Schools that are test-blind will not consider an applicant’s test scores even if they are submitted. Admissions decisions are made solely on the basis of GPA, letters of recommendation, extracurriculars, research projects, supplemental essays, etc. Even if you have a perfect ACT or SAT score, it will not give you any advantage at test-blind schools. Some schools with test-blind policies in the 2022-23 admissions cycle include all University of California and California State campuses.

Schools that are test-optional do not require any test scores from applicants, but they will still consider test scores as part of a candidate's overall portfolio if they are included. This term describes the vast majority of universities that do not require ACT or SAT scores.


So should I submit my scores?


If you are applying to test-blind schools, submitting your scores or not won’t change your chances of admission.

If you are applying to test-optional schools, however, it’s likely that your scores or your choice not to submit them will still factor into your admission decision.

You can think of optional test scores like any other optional or supplemental part of a college application – a supplemental letter of recommendation or an optional essay prompt. You don’t have to do them, but they’re additional opportunities to showcase your value and uniqueness as a candidate, so of course you should take advantage of them! In doing so, you paint yourself as an applicant who will go above and beyond to stand out to admissions officers.

Moreover, the standardized test scores of incoming classes still factor into a given college’s rankings, which of course they want to optimize. Until this is no longer the case, if two applicants have similarly strong essays, extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, and GPAs, the candidate who includes test scores will very likely be favored.

There are a couple of extenuating circumstances which may mean that omitting test scores from your application is the right decision for you. First, it’s okay to apply without test scores if you cannot afford standardized tests or cannot afford the coaching and many attempts at the tests you would need to achieve the scores you want to present to colleges. Test-optional admissions are designed to remove these barriers for low income, first generation, underrepresented applicants. Second, if you really struggle with test-taking and even after multiple attempts and lots of practice feel that your scores vastly underrepresent your academic abilities, it may be in your best interest to omit them.

But for the majority of competitive applicants to top research institutions, test scores in the school’s target range largely remain necessary for getting accepted. While top universities are moving towards greater accessibility and inclusivity with test-optional admissions, this will not truly be the case until schools shift to entirely test-blind admissions.


The takeaway


For high-achieving students, even in the world of test-optional admissions, excellent test scores and GPAs are still a key part of the college admissions equation. However, you cannot rely on these to make you stand out. Top research universities receive thousands of applicants with 4.0’s and perfect or near-perfect test scores. It’s now well-documented that applicants who have significant research experience, an extended history of community service, a company or nonprofit they found, or other self-motivated, self-guided projects in their portfolio fare the best in gaining admission to their research institution of choice. It's through these experiences that students demonstrate their personal values and show their aptitude for an academic niche which catches the eyes of admissions officers.


For more FAQs, check out this recording of our recent college admissions webinar with Dr. Kristen Willmott, the Senior Private Counselor and Graduate School Admissions Director at Top Tier Admissions. Skip to 00:15:21 to hear Dr. Willmott specifically address the question of test-optional vs. test-blind admissions.