Test-optional in the coronavirus era: not so optional after all?

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Every week, more colleges jump aboard the test-optional train in response to coronavirus-related disruptions to students’ testing timelines. But how optional have SAT/ACT scores really become?

Elite schools may be dropping their SAT/ACT requirements …

On April 22, Cornell became the first Ivy League school to drop SAT/ACT scores from admissions requirements for students applying in the fall of 2020. Cornell joins other competitive universities—Williams, Amherst, Boston University, and the UC schools, to name a few—that have announced temporary SAT/ACT policy changes for the upcoming admissions cycle. 

These changes should reassure students who currently have no access to testing: you’ll be able to meet these schools’ baseline admissions requirements even in the worst-case scenario.

… but you should read the fine print.

Test-optional policies might initially sound like a huge relief, but the reality is that SAT/ACT administrations, whether in-person or online, are likely to resume (at least in a limited fashion) in many locations before application deadlines. If that happens, the most competitive schools may be less impressed by students who choose not to take the SAT or ACT when testing opportunities are available.

Cornell, for example, still expects to receive SAT/ACT scores from many students and says that these scores will continue to demonstrate college-level preparedness. Cornell’s statement announcing the test-optional shift advises students that "results from the ACT or SAT might still be a meaningful differentiator,” in admissions decisions, particularly for students who have had reasonable opportunities to sit for exams and whose families have not faced a loss of income or other hardships this year.

Meanwhile, Boston University officials encourage students to “consider whether the breadth of their academic records, their contributions in the classroom and outside in their communities, and the range of their experiences reflect their full potential.”

What does this mean?

Students are not off the hook quite yet. You should always check with your college counselor, but in most cases, if you have access to testing, you should still plan to test. A few reasons why:

  • Schools that normally require the SAT/ACT will likely still encourage students to submit scores if they have access to testing—especially if their families have not experienced financial hardship due to the pandemic. 
  • Students who can score in higher percentiles on the SAT/ACT may need those scores to help differentiate them from their peers and strengthen their applications. Some of the other application components that typically help students stand out, including many extracurricular activities, class grades, and work opportunities, have been interrupted. Consequently, strong SAT/ACT scores can be a way for students to really distinguish themselves.
  • You may still need SAT/ACT scores for certain colleges, anyway. Some schools, like the University of Michigan, have made a point of clarifying that they will not change their testing policies at this time, despite the recent test cancellations.

Given all of the caveats and considerations surrounding colleges’ test-optional policies, for now, many juniors will find that the best plan is their original plan: to submit SAT/ACT scores to colleges that factor them into admissions decisions. 

Moreover, we expect many schools to return to their usual SAT/ACT policies once regular testing schedules resume, so the testing plans of sophomores and younger students may be largely unaffected by the temporary policy changes.

Need more individualized advice?

The recommendations above are general suggestions. If you have specific questions or want a personalized plan, reach out to our experts here. We’re happy to help in any way we can.


About ArborBridge

ArborBridge is the global leader in innovative, digital, one-on-one tutoring. With nearly a decade of experience teaching students online, ArborBridge supports students of all kinds: home schoolers, AP students, test preppers, and more. Our tutors specialize in creating personalized plans and in providing compassionate support for students and families.

Erin Ohsie-Frauenhofer

About Erin Ohsie-Frauenhofer

As one of the highest-performing tutors in ArborBridge’s history, Erin coaches tutors and develops tools and trainings to disrupt old habits and empower new strengths. With a Master of Arts in Teaching from Brown University, Erin worked as a classroom teacher and student services director prior to joining ArborBridge in 2017. Her decade of success as an educator has prepared her to ensure that programs are tailored to individual students’ needs.

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