Navigating Test Optional

How the lack of test score requirements are affecting college applications this year.

Art By Kien-Binh Vo

Art By Kien-Binh Vo

For high school seniors, the college application process can be one of the most stressful times in high school, and with the complications the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this year, many aspects of the process are changing. An SAT or ACT standardized test score was previously required at most colleges across the nation; this year as we have seen more and more schools become test optional, students are having to learn how to adjust to the new standards as well as figure out how to navigate the changing admission process. Many students have struggled to decide if they should try to take the test again, or if they should submit scores that they got the first time they were able to test.

Ella Schmidt, a senior at Garfield High School, is not planning on submitting her scores from the SAT she took in March at school. “I took the school one and I did okay on it but I didn’t study at all,” Schmidt said.

Many students have fallen into this situation and will not be submitting scores for this reason. Lola Gimbel-Sherr, a senior at Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences (SAAS), on the other hand, was never able to take the SAT or ACT. “I was planning to take [the SAT]  in May or March or something and then COVID-19 happened and it got pushed back to June, and then never happened,” Gimbel-Sherr said.

Despite the fact that both students won’t be submitting scores, they aren’t too concerned. “Overall, I’m not really worried about it because I stand out as a student in different ways and I’m hoping that since most people won’t be submitting scores it won’t affect me,” Schmidt said.

Many colleges are expecting a majority of students not to include test scores on their application. Though this is a big change from last year, admissions officers don’t think it will have a huge impact on how the application and decision process will carry out. Because other parts of the application are more important towards deciding if a student should be admitted or not, choosing not to submit a score is not going to have a big impact on whether or not a student is admitted to a school especially considering many students’ situations this year.

“For the most part, we have always placed the majority of our decision making on the students grades and grade trends and GPA,” Carmen Garcia, one of Washington State University’s admissions counselors, said.

If a student is strong in the other areas of the application, then the lack of a score should not be a stressor. “I think test scores have become increasingly less important to colleges. Yes, they can show a snapshot of a person’s ability to take a test but how does that translate to school and the real world?” Kenneth Courtney said, one of Garfield’s counselors. “Colleges aren’t looking for a number, they are looking for who a student is and their impact on those around them.”

One of Whitman College’s admissions officers who reviews applications, Kris Surovjak, echoed this idea: “Even for students who do submit scores, we do focus more of our energy on understanding the story behind the transcript, so not only paying attention to the GPA but also to the trajectory and if there are anomalies.”

Whitman College has been test optional for seven years, so the absence of test scores among some students is normal for them.

Because of the adjustments that have been made to the college admissions process as a result of the pandemic, a new issue arises as more schools become test optional: is this system equitable?

“I’ve always thought the test system is horrible – there is the whole economic aspect of it – for example I had tutors and a ton of time and people that support me where other people don’t have that, same with private schools versus public schools have a lot of different resources,” Gimbel-Sherr said.

However, the recent test optional system has shown another side of this. Some students were never able to take either test, while others were able to – some even more than once to get a score they were pleased with. Submitting a good score does give applicants a leg up so it is easy to see how test optional could be inequitable. It has been reported that some students have gone so far as to fly to another state to test.

“It just really shows how messed up the SAT system is because kids who have money to fly to a different city to get a good score puts other kids who don’t have that money at such a disadvantage,” Schmidt adds.

Universities are trying to navigate this issue by making sure the admissions process is as fair as possible.“I can say without a doubt that whether or not you submit a score you stand the same chance of getting admitted.” Surovjak at Whitman assures.

Some schools have even decided to go completely test blind in order to be as fair as possible.

Because schools won’t be able to see many student’s test scores, the other parts of the application are going to be reviewed more seriously. “Writing is going to be huge for students, letters of recommendation are going to be huge, and courses and course rigor is going to be huge,” said Tiffany Bigham, Garfield’s college and career counselor.

The unknowns of this current climate has made the college application process so much more stressful for seniors applying this year. “Only really consider what you can control,” Ms. Bigham advises.

There is no way around these challenges, but there are still ways that students can enhance their application without having to submit test scores. “If students are given the opportunity to write I would probably make sure that’s the best essay you can write. Have peers look at it, teachers, parents to ensure that you’re submitting your best work because aside from your grades, the essay is going to play the next biggest part in making a decision,” Garcia says.

Schmidt decided early on to step away from test taking to work on this, “I wanted to take [the SAT] again but I just wasn’t able to and then I just decided, OK I’m just going to focus on making the other parts of my applications better.”

Looking forward, the changes that have been brought on because of COVID-19  may change the college admissions process for many generations to come. Students like Schmidt are hoping this will be the outcome. “I know that that major push just came from the Corona virus but I’m hoping that we’ll see a switch to test optional or no more SAT in the future,” Schmidt says.

It is likely some schools will continue being test optional after this year if they were not already. While this is not certain, it remains a possibility.  “We’ll have to see how this year pans out for the universities,” Garcia remarks. “If a university sees that a lot of students that didn’t submit tests are still succeeding at the university level, that will likely influence whether they move forward with being test optional or test blind.”