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Ivy League Colleges Still Want to See Your Test Scores During COVID

The exterior of several stone-faced buildings at dusk, just as the lights are coming on.

On April 22, Cornell University dropped a bomb in the college admissions world. Due to the disruptions to test dates caused by COVID-19, the university said, it would not require the submission of SAT or ACT scores by applicants in 2020-2021.

Numerous other colleges and universities had announced temporary or permanent test-optional policies before this, but coming from an Ivy League school, the announcement woke everyone up. Could it be that even the most elite universities were souring on standardized tests? Would the SAT and ACT fall prey to the coronavirus pandemic?

As it turns out… not exactly.

What Temporary Test-Optional Policies Actually Mean

Digging into Cornell’s actual announcement gave us pause. After announcing that the tests would not be strictly required, Cornell stated, “We anticipate that many students who will have had reasonable and uninterrupted opportunities to take the ACT and/or SAT during 2020 administrations will continue to submit results, and those results will continue to demonstrate preparation for college-level work.”

What does that mean? It means that, at the end of the day, Cornell does want to see your SAT or ACT score, and they want it to be excellent.

This fact highlights something more broadly relevant, too: schools that are going test-optional solely for next year are not necessarily doing so because they do not care about standardized test scores. The COVID-19 emergency has caused concern among admissions officers that students may not be able to take the test and thus will feel they can’t apply. Out of a sense of fairness (and to keep their number of applications up), they have made these test scores optional.

However, if you have a good score, these temporarily test optional schools still want to see it. To paraphrase Cornell’s announcement, they still see that score as a useful metric in evaluating a student’s academic readiness, and they know that many students will still be able to take the test (or have already taken it).

The takeaway? If you don’t submit an ACT or SAT score, it may hurt your application.

I Thought You Said Test-Optional Really Means Optional??

We did! And for schools that permanently dropped the standardized testing requirement, either before or as a result of the coronavirus, we mean it. Many schools feel that the other factors of your application—your grades, your essays, your activities, your recommendation letters—are more than enough for them to make an admissions decision without seeing an SAT score from you.

Furthermore, there is definitely evidence that the current crisis is causing schools to reevaluate their reliance on standardized testing. A handful of very competitive schools, including Tufts University, Swarthmore College, and Middlebury College, have become test-optional for the next two or three years, to evaluate whether they need the test at all. At the end of these pilot programs, it’s possible these schools will drop the requirement altogether.

At the majority of these newly and temporarily test-optional schools, however, this shift is clearly a one-time policy created in response to unprecedented social, economic, and academic disruption. While these schools feel they can’t require the test, it’s probable that they would prefer to see a good score. Some state that applicants who submit without scores will not be penalized; others do not, leaving open the possibility that not submitting a score will hurt an applicant.

So, I Have to Submit My Scores No Matter What?

Not necessarily! Yes, there are some schools that will hold it against you if you don’t submit your standardized test scores, particularly those at the top of the rankings. If other very elite schools follow Cornell, you can likely expect to see similar language in their announcements.

However, if you aren’t happy with your current scores, and you end up not being able to take the test again, these announcements present you with an opportunity. Certainly, without an ACT or SAT score, admissions officers at elite schools will look even more critically at your grades, activities, service, leadership, letters, and essays. They may decide those factors are not enough to outweigh the lack of an SAT score.

Nevertheless, optional is optional; they will not reject you solely because you do not have a score. So, if you’re someone with an unimpressive standardized test score but a great profile everywhere else, it could very well make sense not to submit your scores. You’ll have to ask yourself (or a trusted advisor) whether the poor score is worse than submitting nothing at all.

Ugh.

We know how you feel. Navigating the standardized testing landscape is hard even in normal times, and these are not normal times. This is a good opportunity to take a deep breath and remind yourself that standardized test scores are just one part of your overall application. Whether you choose to submit or not, there will be plenty in your application for colleges to love.

In the meantime, given that most schools are still asking to see scores, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the latest changes and continue to prep for the intended test dates in the late summer and fall. As with everything else in the age of coronavirus, all we can do is plan for what we do know.

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