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Ivy League & Other Universities Want to See Test Scores During COVID

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

On April 22, 2020, 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 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 initial 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 did want to see your SAT or ACT score, and they wanted it to be excellent.

This fact highlights something more broadly relevant, too: schools that went test-optional as a result of the pandemic did not necessarily do so because they do not care about standardized test scores. Rather, the COVID-19 emergency caused concern among admissions officers that students might not be able to take the test and thus will feel they could not apply. Out of a sense of fairness (and to keep their number of applications up), they made these test scores optional.

Of course, a few years later, we know that many top schools have extended their test-optional policies on a year-to-year basis. Columbia has even done so permanently!

However, if you have a good score, most 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, launched longer-term test-optional policies, 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 many 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. MIT, for instance, has already restored its testing requirements. While some schools still 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.

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. 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 them 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 wise to keep an eye on the latest policies and continue to prep for your SAT and/or ACT tests. Good luck!

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