Was test optional, ultimately, a disservice to kids or was it the right choice?

It looks like applications are way up across the board, presumably due to test optional policies.

Many people predicted that application numbers would go up. But, it took months for actual data to trickle out, revealing the massive increase, especially at top schools. Families were left to navigate a situation without really knowing what the situation was - steering the boat mid-storm, so to speak.

Covid threw us all for a loop. I don’t think it would have been fair to require test scores when some kids genuinely couldn’t test. But, on the other hand, I’m not sure it was right to just swing open the gates so fully.

I have to wonder if colleges knew what test optional would practically mean and if they accurately predicted their numbers. I also have to wonder if there’s something they could have done to stem the tide a little better. Perhaps ask kids to explain why they’re not submitting test scores? Or, do colleges love the increased application numbers and the resultant lower acceptance rates?

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts on test optional now that we’ve seen the numbers. Would you have had your kids do anything different in the application process? Apply to more schools? Apply to less schools and spend more time crafting superior supplemental essays that popped? Take a chance with ED?

And finally, best of luck to all the families navigating the process in this unprecedented time. I hope all our kids get into their first choice schools!! :wink: :wink:

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I’m a test prep tutor, and sooo many of my students were simply unable to take the tests. I don’t see that colleges had much option but to let kids apply test optional. And as for students, yes, a lot of them figured they’d take a shot, but I suspect that for AOs at tippy top colleges, it’s likely they are pretty easily able to spot the strong applicants from the not so strong ones. I do think they must have had a harder time than usual though.

Btw, colleges are aware of the difficulty many kids faced in trying to make the tests. I am sure they had to hire more readers for this cycle.


I would’ve thought the opposite was happening since I’ve seen so many extension of the deadlines for university across the country. What you a saying makes sense though. While admissions say SAT (or lack of a score) won’t be held against you I wonder if having them pushing admissions in your favor. The known VS unknown. I’d be curious to see what the data shows for engineering schools specifically.

I have mixed feelings on this. For my kid and many of his friends, test optional was a huge disservice. He studied for the ACT on his own for weeks, no prep course or paid test counselor. Took it the summer before Junior year, scored well and was done. He takes the hardest classes available at his school. So far, this admissions season has been disappointing. Very few of his most qualified friends have been admitted where they applied. Many have been outright rejected and many have been deferred. A large part of the negative numbers is due to the huge increase in applications due, in large part, to test optional. He has more to hear from and more apps to submit but its hard to maintain enthusiasm when the numbers are so negative.

So, while there may be benefits from a societal standpoint, test optional has definitely been a disservice to kids that worked hard and prepared in advance.


I think schools had no choice, in some parts of the country it was difficult if not impossible to get a test (CA for example I know hasn’t had a test at all).

For my son? It probably hurt him, but it is what it is. You have to do what’s best for all applicants and TO was the only way to do that.


Something to consider… I just saw a student post on another website that they got into Harvard REA. They took the SAT twice: got a high 1200 score and a low 1300 score. They obviously didn’t submit them.

Was it fair that kids who got lower test scores could so easily hide them? (Versus kids who couldn’t sit for the test due to covid). Maybe the above student was awesome in every other way. Fact is…they were very fortunate to be able to hide their one deficit. I’m sure there are kids with super high standardized test scores who wish they could have hidden that one “B” on their transcript as easily.

Why not ask kids to explain why they aren’t submitting scores? If they’ve got valid reasons and nothing to hide, it shouldn’t have been a problem, right??


Every year on this board are kids with perfect scores that get deferred and rejected in ED. Perfect/high scores have never just been the ticket for admission at competitive schools.

It’s hard to not second guess as parents but this is one of those “it is what it is” things. Competitive schools have always looked way beyond scores/grades. Those are just the bare minimum to get a second look.

And FWIW, there were still plenty of schools that were not test blind and you could still submit good scores if you had them.


I’m not sure how I feel. My daughter and some friends got into Rutgers (in state), a couple friends haven’t heard back who went TO. Our high school had the SAT’s for seniors in October, so they all had an opportunity to take them (plus there was another October option in a nearby tow, same with the ACT. Will colleges just assume TO might be because of bad scores?

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Don’t believe what the colleges tell you that applicants who submit scores and who don’t are treated exactly the same. By its very definition, test optionality sets up two different standards. Colleges may try their best, but they have to use different yardsticks in the absence of test scores. A few colleges, such as Caltech, have decided to go test blind to remove biases that may be caused by those differences.


I agree. This is pretty much what I’ve seen.

I totally agree.

With all due respect, I find this a little difficult to take for two reasons:

  1. A lot of kids worked hard to prepare, including my D21, yet were unable to take the test. D21 took the SAT at a test prep company under timed conditions and scored a 1520 which was in line with her PSAT scores. She enrolled in the high-scorer program and studied hard for the test which she was scheduled to take in the spring of her junior year. Each time she took a practice test, her score went up from the 1520 baseline. Submitting scores would have enhanced her application. Then the pandemic hit and every test in our area has been canceled since that time. It is not easy for a student to study and have the test canceled, and to have this happen over and over. It’s great that your son took the test a little earlier than my daughter, that he, “worked hard and prepared in advance,” but you seem to be implying that candidates without test scores, like my daughter, are a detriment to your son. Your son is one of the lucky ones.

  2. At long last, the doors are open to highly qualified applicants who have resumes equally as impressive as their high-test-scoring-peers. Those are the applicants who can legitimately complain about the system being a disservice to them.

I agree this year is brutal in its unpredictability and it’s really hard for our kids to have to deal with this on top of everything else.

From everything I’ve seen, the colleges truly meant it when they said applying test-optional means not being at a disadvantage. The numbers are showing this to be true. This leads me to believe that contrary to people saying TO candidates are under-qualified, that there are thousands of highly qualified students for whom test scores were the one thing that kept them out of top schools.

I asked D21s college counselor to write in the counselor’s report that every SAT date has been canceled since the pandemic began. He also referenced her PSAT score. This made it clear that no test results were being submitted because my daughter was unable to take the test.


For an elite, the vast majority of applicants who make it through the first cut have top stats and the rigor. So yes, much more than that goes into picking the right class from that pool. And now, without scores, the emphasis is on the same elements of the rest of the app/supp package.

That’s not just the Personal Statement, btw. You’re constructing a self presentation, asking a college to admit you. Every piece can reveal how you think of this process, what you understand about your match (to what they want, not just to your own dreams,) your maturity, resilience, and more.

I know it’s hard to let go of the idea higher scores mean higher successes, but try it.

Yes, a higher volume of applications means a concerted effort to quickly identify the best. Less time rethinking borderline kids. But the overall process at an elite remains pretty much the same: they know what they want and look for signs of it in the whole app package. It’s there or not, regardless of TO this season.

Kids who do submit top scores have no inherent advantage- I mean, no special check mark or added points. Adcoms know kids and the breadth of school situations across the country better than anyone, because they work with thousands of them, year 'round. They know the std tests have simply been impossible, this season.

So. mind your apps. Be informed, think through your approach, give it your best. Scores or no scores.


Applications are not up “across the board”. Applications appear to be down overall. For example, the article at College applications are decreasing states, “The Common Application received 8 percent fewer applications through Nov. 2 compared to last year, and 60 percent of its 921 members were reporting application declines.”

Rather than across the board, I think applications appear to be up at a specific type of college – highly selective private colleges, such as HYPSM… Not quite as selective colleges, tend to show far more modest increases. In some cases, there is no increase. For example, Emory reports 8% more ED applicants that last year, which is consistent with the rate of increase from previous years… nothing abnormal. John Hopkins reported an 11% increase, which is a little higher than the rate from previous years, but not a major anomaly.

However, Harvard had a huge 57% increase in early applications from last year, which is a major anomaly. Yale also had a large 38% increase, and some other Ivies were >20%. The general trend seems to be, the more selective the college, the greater the increase in applications over last year.


For the first time schools had no choice but to offer test optional due to lack of testing availability.

These schools will find, as long-standing test-optional schools have through their research and studies, that test scores are no predictor of success in college.

And testing will fade away until the testing companies figure out a way to adapt the tests themselves.


Completely agree with you, @Goldpenn. My daughter studied very hard for the SAT, using Khan at home, and was getting over 1500 on every practice test she took. She had achieved NMSF status on the PSAT. Her test was cancelled the day before she was to take it. I scheduled 5-6 more tests over the next few months, some in different counties. Each was cancelled. I was pretty frantic because I did not believe the colleges really would treat applications with and without scores the same.

But I was wrong. All the rest of my daughter’s application was strong. And her counsellor wrote in her rec about the impossibility of taking the test.

She applied to two safety schools EA and to her top school ED. She ended up getting a full scholarship at one of her safeties and a half scholarship as well as admittance to the honors college at the other (only 85 freshman students admitted to honors every year). And she got admitted to her ED school.

So, it didn’t matter in the end. The small LAC to which she applied ED really did look at her application holistically. And so too did the larger universities to which she applied EA.

I hope COVID accelerates the process of kicking these tests to the curb. And puts a stop to the ridiculous overloading of our high school students with hoops and obstacles to jump over on the road to college admittance.


There are also schools that hand out high GPA’s very easily. those kids now go in with that and no tests scores have a big advantage over harder working kids with lower GPA due to school rigor.

Test optional should have other metrics like maybe more essays. Especially for the more selective schools.


And GPA can be so variable. Take my kids’ high school. There are two teachers that teach the identical class. One teacher is an easy grader. The other likes to show “growth” and many kids get C’s the first quarter with B’s and A’s toward the end of the year. How do we acknowledge subjectivity in grading, even within the same school?


Can this question be answered without knowing if students who “didn’t deserve” to get in actually did get in because they didn’t submit scores?

Has Harvard released how many of their ED admits didn’t submit scores?

Let’s say a handful* of “undeserving” kids did sneak their way into Harvard ED, can anyone really say any of those kids took a spot from any specific other applicant? Perfect score kids have always been rejected in significant numbers. It is impossible to know why in any specific case. The culprit has always been too many qualified students for the spots. It hurts, for sure, and it always has.

*It could only be a handful, as most of the 700-ish EDs are likely athletes, legacies, development applicants, or students who did “deserve” to get in regardless of scores. My guess, totally a guess, is that Harvard’s low ED admits reflects a conservative approach to early commitments, while they are learning how to evaluate applications without scores, to make sure they accept the students they always do.


My kid just got into Harvard early action. Getting him a seat to take the ACT was a full-time job - my job. He self-studied for it and got a 36 on his one try at a standardized test, but if I hadn’t spent WEEKS battling with the nightmare that the ACT company turned into, he wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take the test. Yes, eventually seats became available in September and October in our town, but the ACT never notified us of this - I had to check, day after day, to see if seats had opened up, and reschedule from UTAH to our town in CT. Yes, we would have flown him out to Utah even to get a chance to take the test. Meanwhile, kid’s only job was to study and practice, while I fought the ACT dragon.

There is no way that your average first gen to college kid had the same shot at getting a seat for the ACT in the Northeast. Most schools did schedule an in-school SAT, so most kids who wanted to take the SAT were able to do so. I bet that a lot of schools outside the Northeast did the same thing with the ACT. But money aside (we paid nothing for test prep other than buying a few books, total of under $40 I think), the battle with the ACT was a barrier for anyone who didn’t have a parent fighting to get them registered. So there was no way that schools could go other than test optional - it just wasn’t fair to require them this year. However, I do think that if a student couldn’t submit an SAT or ACT, they should have been required to submit their PSAT, which everyone had taken in the fall of 2019, long before Covid times. A very poor score on the PSAT would have filtered out the kids with high grades from non-competitive high schools.

I do think that the test optional policy opened up the floodgates to students who do well in non-competitive high schools, because they didn’t have to submit a mediocre test score. Just look at the essay in the Boston Globe from a year or two ago, about the fate of the valedictorians from their “regular” high schools. Virtually every one of them, despite having been first in their high school class, was barely even prepared to go to community college.
They mostly wound up dropping out of low-level private schools, often with substantial debt. What became of Boston’s brightest? - The Boston Globe Standardized test scores sort those kids out from the ones who are valedictorians at competitive high schools - and they should be used for that purpose.

I am sure that the reason my kid got into Harvard was his very high-level achievement in music. But I’m also sure that they looked at his ACT score, and realized that he had spent 40-50 hrs/wk on music all throughout high school, and so had mostly A minuses rather than A’s in all honors/AP classes, instead of the usual straight A’s in all highest level classes, that most kids accepted to Harvard have gotten. That 36 told them that he was certainly capable of anything they threw at him at Harvard. I think it helped, for him, to have it. I don’t know if he would have gotten in without it, say, if their policy had been test-blind, instead of test optional. I am hoping that they go back to requiring standardized tests. They should not be the only consideration, but they do give an indication of whether the student has mastered the high school curriculum, and so should be a factor.