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Test Optional: What it Means for Your College Applications

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In the wake of the pandemic, a lot of schools became test-optional, since many students weren’t able to take the SATs or ACTs due to COVID-19 shutdowns and other safety measures. 

Even after schools brought testing back and adjusted to new protocols, many schools continued to keep their test-optional policies in place, in part to strive for more diversity and equal opportunity, since many students do not have the resources to take standardized tests. Some educators argued that if schools continued to require test scores, they would greatly reduce the applications they’d receive from historically excluded communities, thus taking a passive bystander approach to the issue of access.

Since standardized tests were thought to be a huge component of the college application for so long, many are left wondering how test-optional policies change the admissions process.

The answer is nuanced, but the bottom line is: Admissions officers have fewer data points by which to assess and compare applicants, which means the information they do have access to, like the college essay, becomes that much more important.

Think about it: if an admissions officer is comparing two applications with similar grades and extracurricular activities, and neither were submitted with test scores, they are probably going to look to the essays for clarity regarding the applicant’s likelihood to meet the credentials they’re looking for. 

Of course, no one ever really knows what those credentials are, since most admissions offices claim to review applications holistically, and one can never be sure what kind of scholars they’re hoping to invite to campus next fall.

If you don’t plan to submit test scores, whether that be because you’re not able to take the exams, you’re just not a good test taker, or any other valid reason, we recommend reallocating the time you would’ve spent studying to making sure your essay submissions are the very best they can be. 

You can do this by designating more time to the brainstorming process: thinking critically about the stories you have to tell about yourself and where those stories may best fit within your application at large. (Do they belong in the personal statement? Supplemental essays? The Additional Information essay?) You could review our supplemental essay guides to gain insight into what admissions is really asking and/or consider filming an introductory video if one or more of your top-choice schools invites you to.

There are a plethora of ways to elevate your application and stand out from the crowd—many of them start with the college essay.

Want to give yourself a leg up on the competition?
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