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The Contradictory Nature of Test-Optional Admissions

Updated: Mar 22, 2023

As a result of that thing that happened in 2020 (... you know... that thing), many colleges and universities have adopted a "test-optional" policy, allowing applicants to choose whether or not to submit SAT or ACT scores as part of their application. This move was intended to make the admissions process more equitable, as some students may not have had access to the resources and preparation necessary to perform well on standardized tests. However, despite the test-optional policy, preliminary data and feedback from colleges is showing that some colleges still place a high value on these tests, even if they are not required.

Reason 1: Standardized Tests help with Sorting Applications

One reason for this is that standardized tests provide a common metric for comparing applicants. Admissions officers are often inundated with applications, and it can be challenging to compare students from different schools and backgrounds. Standardized test scores can serve as a useful benchmark for evaluating applicants' academic preparedness and potential. That's why schools like University of Florida and Penn State have factored testing into their algorithm for admission. They can also help admissions officers identify students who might be struggling in certain subject areas or who have particular strengths (read: Engineering or Computer Science).

Reason 2: Standardization Provides a Yardstick for Comparison

Another reason some colleges value standardized tests is that they can provide additional information about a student's academic abilities beyond the transcript. While a transcript shows a student's grades and courses taken, standardized tests can give insight into how well a student can perform under pressure and how well they can think critically and solve problems. This is especially important because...

Reason 3: Grade Inflation

Another factor that contributes to the continued importance placed on standardized tests by some colleges is the phenomenon of grade inflation. Grade inflation is the practice of awarding higher grades than are justified by a student's performance. If you look at data over the past 12 years alone, you can see the average GPA has slowly crept up while standardized test scores have inched down.


If grade inflation is widespread at a school, it can be difficult for admissions officers to differentiate between students who have earned their high grades through hard work and those who have simply benefited from lax grading policies. In this context, standardized tests can provide a valuable measure of a student's academic abilities, independent of the grading policies at their school.

Reason 4: USNWR

It is also worth noting that standardized test scores, including the SAT and ACT, continue to play a role in college rankings, such as those published by USNWR (I'll just leave the acronym here and let you guess what I'm talking about). This magazine includes SAT and ACT scores as one of several factors in their methodology, along with measures such as graduation rates, faculty resources, and student selectivity. In fact, standardized test scores factor 5% into the ranking of a college as of 2023.

This can create a situation in which colleges feel pressure to prioritize SAT and ACT scores, even if they have otherwise moved towards a test-optional policy. The inclusion of test scores in college rankings can create an incentive for colleges to encourage students to submit test scores, as higher average scores can lead to a higher ranking and greater prestige.

Criticism of Standardized Tests

Despite the potential benefits of standardized tests, critics argue that they are not always an accurate measure of academic potential and can perpetuate inequities in the admissions process. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds may not have had access to the same test preparation resources as their wealthier peers, and certain cultural and linguistic barriers can also make it more difficult for some students to excel on standardized tests.

As a result, many colleges have adopted a holistic approach to admissions, taking into account factors beyond test scores and grades, such as extracurricular activities, essays, letters of recommendation, and demonstrated leadership and community service. Some colleges have even gone further and adopted a "test-blind" policy, in which they do not consider standardized test scores at all.

Is going test-optional truly ethical?

It is important to recognize that while standardized tests have received criticism for perpetuating inequities in the college admissions process, personal statements or essays may also be subject to ethical concerns. Personal statements, which are often used as part of the college application process, are supposed to allow applicants to showcase their unique qualities and experiences. However, some students may have access to more resources or support that can give them an advantage in crafting a compelling personal statement. This may include access to private college counselors, parents who are experienced writers or editors, or opportunities to travel or participate in extracurricular activities that can make for interesting essay topics. This can create an uneven playing field for applicants who may not have access to these resources, perpetuating existing disparities in the college admissions process. While personal statements can provide valuable insights into an applicant's character and experiences, it is important for admissions officers to consider them alongside other factors, such as test scores, grades, and extracurricular activities, and to take steps to mitigate the influence of privilege and inequity in the application process.

What lies ahead?

I truly wish I could draw a conclusion, but with colleges being opaque about their processes, it's hard to say. Anecdotally, though, we have seen immense success with our score-submitting students. We've had students with high test scores gain acceptance to highly selective colleges, even with middling GPAs. At the end of the day, a lot of large institutions of higher education use standardized tests as a way to evaluate their student success, so it makes sense that being able to do well on a test like the SAT does provide some statistical value.


Joey L. (perfect score recipient on the SAT and ACT) is the owner and founder of Thinque Prep, an academic advising service specializing in college readiness, tutoring, and SAT/ACT preparation. When Joey isn’t helping students navigate high school and beyond, he enjoys making college resources available to as many people as possible.

Got a burning college question? Check out our Facebook group where Joey goes live every Monday at 5pm Pacific/8pm Eastern.

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