5 months ago
Admissions Advice

How much does test-optional actually hurt you?

I'm a well above average but not excellent standardized test taker, and although I only have a PSAT 9 score I want to be prepared for a medium-high score outlook. I feel like the SAT doesn't really showcase my academic abilities, and the amazing extracurriculars I have projected and are already doing are the things that REALLY explain who I am and what I love. Is it really going to hurt my chances holistically?


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1 answer

5 months ago[edited]

The SAT or ACT is not supposed to showcase your academic abilities. They cater to 2 primary groups of test-takers for the top tier school admissions offices

1.) if you are naturally gifted and acquire and retain knowledge easily and can make inferences quickly, colleges use tests to quickly filter out those who don't meet an arbitrary threshold. So for Ivy leagues or Elites, that cutoff might be a 1500 or 34 (a 99 Percentile score) and these types of students can either walk-in cold and get that score or do minimal test prep and attain that. For these types, applying without a test score is reasonable because they probably have 10+ APs, a lot of evidence of intellectual curiosity, and honors and awards that support they are self-motivated and have challenged themselves more than other peers within their zip code.

2.) if you are a grinder and work hard, these tests give such students an opportunity to test prep, take lots of practice tests, take either test multiple times, allow "superscores" of the test, etc. For these types of test-takers, the colleges are assessing how badly these applicants want to meet the academic threshold. It's never been a test of knowledge but rather a test of "how well you can follow instructions and take a test". Those who fall into this category take a sizable risk of not applying with a test score. These students may not have challenged themselves academically as much as group 1 nor have won the highest accolades for their accomplishments. For them, a high test score defends their position to be considered.

If you are not in either one of these categories, the likelihood of getting accepted into a top-tier college is sub-optimum.

What we know about the last admissions cycle is that those who were admitted into the best colleges more often applied with high test scores versus going test-optional. You can search previous posts which have stats on the numbers but I recall that 76% of UPenn's admits had test scores and 90-93% of MITs and Georgetown's EA/ED applicants had test score. As you go down the rankings, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tier colleges were more flexible with test scores because they needed applicants to keep their matriculation numbers, hence revenue streams up.

If you are very concerned that you will not be able to get the high test scores you need I recommend that you look at historically test-optional colleges because they have been doing this for a very long time. So these would be schools like Pitzer, Trinity College, Union College, Bowdoin, Wake Forest, UChicago, Whitman, Washington & Jefferson, Wesleyan, Clark, Muhlenberg, Bates and if you are female, Bryn Mawr, Scripps, Mount Holyoke, and Smith.

Why am I confident that my answer is reasonable. I watched dozens and dozens of my peers apply to their college lists without test scores and no one got into their top choices, most of them had to settle for a target or a "safety" school.

Good luck


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