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What Test-Optional College Applications Mean for Main Line Students

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Amid changing college application requirements, residents of the Main Line negotiate the murky waters of standardized testing.

Across the country, hundreds of colleges and universities have dropped the test score requirement from the application process. Meanwhile, the dreaded essay and subject tests are no long part of the SAT. What exactly can students and parents make of this shift in the college admissions process? Is it as seismic as it appears? And is the pandemic to blame?

college testing

Jon Krause

Some schools had already dropped the testing requirement before COVID-19. Now though, most colleges and universities in the United States are test-optional—at least for the time being. “The idea behind it was twofold,” said Aviva Legatt, an Ardmore resident and founder of Ivy Insight, a college admissions consulting group.

Initially, it was to even the playing field for underrepresented and low-income students. “Some studies show that the test is culturally biased,” says Legatt. “People who are white tend to do better on it and often have tutoring, test-prep and so on.”

Then, along came COVID-19. “Colleges didn’t want to lose out on applicants who would’ve taken the test but were unable to—or weren’t able to study in the ways they wanted to study,” Legatt says.

While test-optional schools don’t require students to send their test scores, there’s nothing preventing an admissions officer from having a look if a student sends them—and that could potentially play a role in a decision. Test-blind schools, on the other hand, won’t take scores into consideration with their admissions decision, even if they’re submitted.

For students from middle- or upper-class areas where they’re more likely to have access to test prep and testing sites, Legatt has this recommendation: “If you have a score that’s at or above pre-pandemic levels for that college, you should send it in.”

It’s easy to see how the test-optional shift has lent a certain unpredictability to application process. “High schools generally had a sense of the number of students they could expect to get into a certain college, based on students’ GPA and test scores,” says Legatt. “Now, without the test scores, it’s harder for students to make their college lists and predict where they’re going to get in.”

It’s also emboldened students to apply to colleges they wouldn’t have considered before. “No one can have a crystal ball and know for sure, but there’s a lot more variability in admissions outcomes,” Legatt says. “The intention behind it is good, but the actual experience for many applicants has created even more stress and difficulty.”

The transition to test-optional is never set in stone. Some universities may well bring back the testing requirement after the pandemic. Harvard University announced that it will continue its test-optional policy until 2026, its dean of admissions giving his assurance that students who don’t submit scores are not at any disadvantage. At Villanova University, no official decision has been made about testing. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next year or two,” says Candice Keith, Villanova’s director of admission operations. “Depending on what grade a student is in, they should definitely plan and prepare to take it.”

At the end of the day, a test score is just a number—and the school you attend doesn’t define who you are. It’s important for students (and parents) to remember that. “I’d encourage students to think differently and think big about what their college journey may look like,” says Legatt, author of the 2021 book Get Real and Get In. “I’m not telling you to apply to 20 or 25 colleges. But look to be more open-minded about what colleges may fit.”

Related: Your Complete Guide to the Main Line Region’s Top Schools