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Columbia University is Now Permanently Test-Optional

A female student at her school desk taking a test on a scantron form.

In March 2023, Columbia University announced that it would permanently drop the SAT/ACT requirement for undergraduate admissions. According to Columbia, this move was prompted by a growing recognition of the flaws in standardized testing and the school’s desire to make the admissions process more equitable and accessible to a broader range of students.

The decision by Columbia to abandon the SAT/ACT requirement represents a significant milestone in the ongoing debate around standardized testing in higher education and in the overall future of college admissions. For decades, standardized tests have been central to the college admissions process. But when the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily ended students’ ability to take these tests, most colleges suspended their requirements. Since then, the vast majority have extended their temporary test-optional policies on an annual basis, with a few notable exceptions. Columbia, however, is the first Ivy League school to drop the SAT/ACT requirement permanently.

In ending the standardized testing requirement, Columbia University has stated that it will be focusing more on students’ academic performance over their four years of high school, as well as their extracurricular activities, community involvement, and other factors that demonstrate an applicant’s potential for success. This approach aligns with a growing trend among colleges and universities to move away from a single metric for evaluating applicants and toward a more nuanced and holistic approach, as universities recognize the limitations of these tests and look for more sophisticated ways to evaluate student potential.

The decision by Columbia may have broader implications for the college admissions process and the future of higher education, as standardized testing becomes an increasingly unnecessary part of the admissions process.

One potential outcome of the shift away from testing could be an increased emphasis on non-cognitive skills and other factors that are not traditionally measured by standardized tests. For example, colleges hope to place more value on a student’s ability to think critically, communicate effectively, and work well in teams. They may also start looking more closely at factors like a student’s passion for a particular subject or their potential for leadership, which are not easily quantifiable but are nonetheless important indicators of success.

Another potential outcome of this shift could be a more diverse student body, an outcome that colleges are presently working hard to achieve. By removing the SAT/ACT requirement, Columbia and other schools hope to attract a more diverse pool of applicants who may not have otherwise considered applying due to their lower standardized test scores. This could help to create a more inclusive and equitable admissions process and ensure that students from all backgrounds have an equal opportunity to succeed.

However, it’s also important not to overstate the magnitude of Columbia’s decision. When the University of Chicago permanently dropped their testing requirement in 2018, many experts predicted that other top schools would follow suit, but they did not—at least, not until the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, many other elite schools have extended their test-optional pilot programs to 2025 or beyond, so they do not need to make a permanent decision about this policy for a few more years.

Furthermore, under this test-optional policy, Columbia will still consider the scores of applicants who submit them; unlike the University of California, they are not test-blind. Many argue that this means Columbia will still strongly prefer, even functionally require, high scores from privileged applicants. For instance, the permanently test-optional University of Chicago has a median SAT score of over 1530, indicating that they do like to see strong scores.

So, what does this mean for your college admissions process? Ultimately, SAT/ACT scores are just one part of the college admissions process. The upside of Columbia’s decision, and these wider changes, is that if you’re a strong test taker, you’ll still have the option to showcase that particular strength in your applications. But if you’re not, the landscape is definitely improving for you—and is likely to continue to do so over the coming months and years.

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