An Independent School • Grades 5-12
New times, new processes

by Erin Foster, college counselor

During the month of February, college admissions offices have wrapped up the Early Action and Early Decision rounds (EA and ED) and are turning to applications received through Regular Decision (RD). RD is the round through which most admissions offices receive the largest percentage of applications. As such, admission officers must sift through tens of thousands of applications to fill the remaining class seats. This year, much like the past two years, many admission officers will be evaluating two types of applications: those that include standardized test scores and those that do not.

In 2020, the pandemic-related shortage of standardized testing centers created an opportunity for colleges and universities to re-examine their testing policies. Some colleges announced they would fast track plans to become permanently test optional; others announced the adoption of temporary test optional policies planned to last between one to five years. In short order, “test optional” became a hot topic. And even now, there can be a lot of confusion about what it means for students. My goal today is to share more information about what “test optional” really means for Lakeside families.

A test optional policy at a college means that applicants choose whether they would like their SAT or ACT scores included in their application. During the height of the pandemic, these policies were put into place due to mass cancellations of SAT and ACT dates. However, as we counselors have watched the test optional movement unfold, we have seen how these policies ultimately give our students more power in deciding how to present their academic abilities to colleges.

Now, you may be wondering how admissions officers evaluate and make challenging admissions decisions when some applicants have testing and others don’t. To help answer this question, I’d like to dispel two common misconceptions:

  1. That testing has always been either equally important or more important than a student’s transcript (a student’s list of high school classes and final grades).
  2. That the college’s application readers prefer that students submit testing.

The false narrative that testing is equally or more important than the transcript has continued to spread partly due to the emphasis on standardized testing scores in college and university rankings such as the one compiled by U.S. News and World Report. Colleges and universities have concentrated on maintaining or increasing admitted students’ standardized testing averages to preserve their high rankings. Those rankings affect families’ perception of a college’s prestige and aid in the college’s efforts to attract the “best and brightest” applicants.

However, the transcript has always been the most important indicator of a student’s preparedness for the colleges and universities to which they have applied. This school record demonstrates the student’s academic strength and ability over a four-year period, rather than over a three- or four-hour sitting of the ACT or SAT. There are numerous factors that can affect a student’s performance on a standardized test: for example, hearing unrelated and distressing news close to their exam date; stress as it relates to stereotype threat; dealing with test anxiety, etc. For this reason — and many others including the inherent racial and socioeconomic bias of standardized testing — colleges have always recognized that the transcript, which outlines students’ performance within the available high school curriculum, provides admissions readers with the best and most complete information when determining how successful students will be at their institution.

As an admissions officer at Washington University in St. Louis (WashU), I found that standardized testing is often perceived as a hindrance by admissions colleagues: adding a barrier for students rather than helping them stand out in the applicant pool. When testing was required, lower scores could prevent our committee from admitting students with stellar transcripts, phenomenal personal qualities, and standout activities — students who would be magnificent community fits for the university. Though we reviewed applications fully and holistically, in the end and much to the committee’s dismay, a lower test score could be the nail in the coffin for a phenomenal student because we had to balance the college’s testing ranges among other critical factors. Now, without standardized test scores, similarly remarkable students who would have been “left on the table” in previous years stand a strong shot in the committee and admissions process.

So, how are applications read with and without standardized test scores? The process for reading these two types of applications is largely the same. When I was an admissions reader, I would begin an application review by evaluating and applying a numeric rating to the most important part of the application: the transcript. Then, if testing was included in the application, I would review and rate the test scores before moving on to the remaining sections of the application. If the student applied without testing, I simply read and rated the transcript and then proceeded to review the remaining application components. Though the process for reading applications with and without standardized testing is similar, many colleges and universities have adjusted their academic rating protocols to better align with the current test optional landscape. As an example, in previous years when testing was required at WashU, the testing rating and the transcript rating were both taken into account when determining a student’s overall academic rating. However, following the change in testing policies, the rating protocol was adjusted so that the overall academic rating no longer took the testing rating into account.

Applying with test scores does not give applicants an advantage over those who apply without testing.  In most cases, when students submit strong test scores the score simply confirms what an admissions reader has already learned about the student’s academic capabilities from their transcript. Because a test optional policy empowers students to decide how they would like to demonstrate their academic ability, students and families should consult with their counselor and think carefully when deciding if submitting test scores makes the most sense for the student’s application. Even though submitting a high score does not provide an additional benefit (or make up for lower grades), submitting a score that is lower than a college’s admitted student profile can still be harmful to a student’s application since colleges still want to maintain their testing ranges. Lakeside’s college counselors use our collective knowledge and expertise to provide data on admissions trends and colleges’ admitted student profiles to help guide students as they decide whether to apply with or without standardized testing.

In reality, standardized test scores do not help admissions committees figure out who a student really is and what impact they will have on their college campus once they arrive. For years, these scores have posed a barrier for phenomenal young people reaching for their dream institutions. Test optional policies are in place to create an admissions world where students who are both academically prepared and great community fits can receive a place at the committee table and have a fair chance for admission. Though there is much work to be done to create a more equitable admissions and college experience for all, with steps like this, colleges are taking strides toward that goal by instituting a process in which students are not hindered or blocked by their standardized test score.

Erin Foster is a college counselor at Lakeside School. Reach her and other members of the team at collegecounseling@lakesideschool.org. Read more articles about college admissions on Lakeside’s college counseling blog.