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What's up with test-optional admissions policies?

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Any student (or parent of a student) beginning the college search process is probably aware that the SAT and ACT often play a big role in the college admissions process. The question of "how did you do on your SATs" from classmates or relatives surfaces as soon as someone starts the college search. Many prospective students ask college admissions professionals, "What do I need on my ACT to get in?" It seems as though there is an awful lot of emphasis on the ACT and SAT.

What is often overlooked is just how many colleges and universities provide students with alternatives or have even abandoned the use of standardized tests. It is estimated that more than half of the U.S. News & World Report's Top 100 national liberal arts colleges have test-optional admissions criteria. In fact, Fair Test has identified more than 800 colleges across the country with test-optional admissions options. So why is no one asking, "Are you applying to any test-optional colleges?"

I suspect that one of the reasons such a question has not yet made it into the college search lexicon is because most students and parents don't know much about test-optional admissions programs. My gut tells me that lack of awareness and maybe suspicion of gimmickry prevents students and families from understanding the value of test-optional admissions, though they may be wondering to themselves.

First, it is important to note that many colleges and universities find tremendous value in standardized test scores, finding them necessary to help with the initial sorting of applicants. Other colleges use them to confirm other elements of a student's academic record. I trust that colleges that don't offer test-optional admissions programs have an evidence-based reason for doing so. I personally believe test scores are worthwhile when considered within a broad context. However, I do not think a student should be defined by a test score exclusively. I am grateful to have worked at institutions that value the big picture when reviewing applicants for admission.

Generally, colleges with test-optional admissions policies have concluded they can select and admit students based on other criteria. Many colleges have cited test bias against non-native English speakers and first-generation college-bound students as a reason for abandoning test scores. Others have indicated that the emphasis on standardized test adds to an unhealthy anxiety students experience during the college search. And, some have cited test-optional policies as being more inviting to students often underserved in higher ed. Every college has its reasons, but you can rest assured lots of thought and assessment goes into any decision to become test-optional.

How did test-optional admissions come about? Bates College in Maine introduced a test-optional admissions policy in the mid-1980s, and has tested and re-tested the effectiveness of their policy and student performance on a regular basis since then. Their ground-breaking and evidence-based case that students are capable of performing equally well when admitted with and without test scores convinced hundreds of other colleges to introduce their own version of test-optional admissions. In recent years, there has been an acceleration of test-optional admissions policies as larger schools also have met with success, and changes to standardized tests have made some colleges caution about their predictive value.

If a college doesn't consider test scores, what will they consider instead? Every test-optional college will be a little different--both in what they consider and the weight of each consideration. But, in most cases, test-optional colleges will place a much greater emphasis on a student's academic record to that point, including the quality of curriculum and the grades earned. It's also likely that extracurricular participation, letters of recommendation and a writing sample will be considered.

At my own institution, which has been test-optional since 2008, instead of the SAT or ACT score, we ask test-optional applicants to submit a graded paper and complete an interview with an admissions counselor. We chose these two activities because we place a high value on written and verbal communication, and believe those qualities are central to a student's success.

A final question might be: Is test-optional admissions for me? It is impossible for me to answer this question for everyone, but I think most students who apply test-optionally believe something other than their test scores is a better measure of their ability to perform successfully in college. I have seen good students with ACT scores below a 20 apply because those scores did not match their academic record. I also have seen students with high scores (28 or 29) apply test-optionally because the score wasn't high enough to meet the personal standards they had established.

Test-optional admissions is not for everyone, but more and more, colleges and applicants are moving in that direction. It is now common. And it is here to stay.

This is one in a series of short posts in which Kent Barnds will provide honest, candid insight into the college admissions process. Watch for more "True Admissions" from Barnds, and listen to his podcasts.