Test Optional and the Upcoming School Year

If you’ve been following the news around higher education and admissions this year, you’ve no doubt been flooded with stories about colleges going test optional. We wanted to take a moment to address the new looming question: to test or not to test? 

Test optional has actually been around for a long time, and in the past ten years, an increasing number of schools, including many elite colleges and grad schools, have been adopting some kind of test optional approach. COVID-19 dramatically sped up that trend, leading almost all schools to go test optional for the 2020-21 cycle. 

Yet despite widespread test optional measures, most students admitted to elite schools have continued to submit scores. While standardized tests are certainly not the sole or the best measure of intelligence, they do offer valuable information about reading, math, problem solving, and critical thinking skills that students will draw upon in college and beyond. They can provide a useful benchmark when considering students from schools with vastly different curricula and grading policies. In fact, many test optional schools have seen an increase in their mid-50% range of SAT/ACT scores (and a corresponding uptick in their US News ranking), since students choosing to submit scores tend to have very good ones. Our sense is that at the top colleges, average standardized test scores are likely to keep going up. In fact, admissions officers seem to expect to see outstanding scores from most applicants attending private schools and competitive public high schools. 

Testing policies will continue to evolve as schools figure out how to most effectively select college-ready classes. That said, at least for the next couple of years, test optional is here to stay. It gives colleges the flexibility to admit students they’d love to see on their campuses who wouldn’t normally meet eligibility requirements if they had to submit scores. That’s a great thing.

There’s no doubt that some students will do well to take advantage of test optional policies and should do so. For example, those who in admissions lingo are truly “hooked” at a certain school–that is, they have a particular, just-about-guaranteed inroad through music, sports, or alumni status. (Are you the world-class oboe player the school’s orchestra is looking for, or the nationally ranked squash player their team needs?) It can also be a good fit for those who, after some honest consideration, find that their scores truly don’t reflect their capacity for high-level academic work. 

The bottom line is that test scores are one part of a competitive college application. Colleges aren’t looking for box-checkers, they’re looking for switched-on learners who can identify their passions and the places where they want to grow, and who make the most out of the resources available. The test prep process can and should be an opportunity to hone the qualities colleges are looking for–not just academic mastery, but effort, self-awareness, and a sense of meaning.  

At Zinc, test prep is a platform for meaningful growth that extends benefits far beyond test day. Are you able to read college-level texts with clarity and confidence? Are there gaps in your algebra and arithmetic knowledge? Do you perform well in class but freeze up on test day? Are you able to make it through your assignments but feel exhausted and disorganized? For us, test prep backfills missing content and builds confidence in our students’ efforts and abilities. Of course, every student has a unique path. We’d love to help your child find and navigate theirs. At the very least, we’re confident you’ll find an informational call with us helpful. Please reach out!