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The 'Test-Optional' Paradox

Updated: May 6, 2021

Amid the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic, university-bound students this year have had the novel opportunity of applying to schools in the U.S. that, for the first time, have declared themselves “test-optional.” All eight of the Ivies have adopted the policy, making SATs and the ACT optional for 2021 high-school grads, and an estimated 72% of schools overall have signed on. Is it a silver-lining in a “detested” year? Or has “test-optional” only made the most selective schools even more so? Whether the policy will be short-lived or, eventually, standard, and how it affects university admissions, affordability, and diversity are already subjects of fierce debate. (Watch this space.) But some early findings are in.

More Students Took a Shot at the Most Selective Schools

Not surprisingly, the combination of schools with new “test-optional” policies and students at home with time on their hands has led to sky-rocketing applications at the most selective U.S. institutions. The Common App has reported an 11% increase over last year in total applications at large public universities and state institutions. At more selective schools that accept fewer than half of students who apply, total applications increased by more than 17%. But the early numbers at the most selective schools are truly eye-popping: Early Decision applications this year compared to last reportedly increased by 49% at Columbia, 22% at Brown, 29% at Dartmouth and 23% at the University of Pennsylvania. Early Action applications surged by 57% at Harvard and 38% at Yale.

More International Students Applied

Whether or not “test-optional” was a factor for prospective international students, they were part of the 2020-2021 tidal wave, notching a 9% increase over the previous year in applications to U.S. schools. The numbers reverse a multi-year trend of declining attendance among international students that was compounded by Covid-related restrictions, which suppressed foreign enrollments in the U.S. even further. China still sends the most students of any foreign country to the U.S., but, according to the Common App, students from Brazil, Pakistan, India, the U.K. and Canada, in that order, contributed the largest percentage increases to the international applicant pool in the 2020-2021 cycle.

Grades and the Whole Person Matter

“Test-optional” is not the same as “test-blind,” a policy by which some schools decline test scores outright, rather than leaving the decision to students, and the debate over its implications will surely continue as this year's admissions process unfolds. But for university-bound students, several things are clear. Many schools have already announced they will maintain the policy through 2021-2022, if not longer. (Click here for an updated list.) Many schools have said that going “test-optional” has forced them to step back and reconsider how they assess applicants and constitute their campus community. And some are incorporating more “holistic” indicators into the admissions process.

For their part, many students have seized the opportunity of "test-optional" to focus less on test scores and more on courses, grades, personal strengths, and character. That’s a win for everyone.

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