When the pandemic began, nearly all colleges and universities in the United States dropped their testing requirements when it became impossible for students in some areas of the country to find a test center and date reliably. Then, as the pandemic continued, many colleges extended their policies for another year or longer. Initially, however, it seemed like the Ivy League was eager to return to requiring test scores.
Then, in December 2021, Harvard University shook the testing and college admissions world by declaring that they would not require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores through the next four years (that is, through the high school Class of 2025). Meanwhile, a few other Ivy League schools (including Cornell University and Stanford University) had already extended their test-optional policies through at least the Class of 2024.
Well, for one thing, the number of applications to top colleges shot up once the testing requirement disappeared. Given that universities are always eager to increase their selectivity, this was a boon to schools like Harvard and Yale, where acceptance rates had plateaued or even ticked up prior to the pandemic. Without the SAT/ACT requirement, however, acceptance rates at these top colleges managed to sink even lower, to 4% or even 3%.
Meanwhile, college admissions offices are paying more attention to equity than ever before and have begun to take claims against standardized testing increasingly seriously, especially evidence suggesting that these tests are unfair to low-income, minority, and other historically marginalized students. Their argument is: if we can successfully evaluate students without the test, why not do so?
It’s important to remember that reports of the SAT’s impending demise have oft been overstated; when the University of Chicago dropped their SAT/ACT requirement back in 2018, many thought similarly selective schools would immediately follow suit. The same line of thought arose when the University of California announced their test-blind pilot starting with the Class of 2021.
Furthermore, the College Board (the organization that designs and implements the SAT) has responded to this cascade of test-optional policies by announcing forthcoming changes to the SAT that they argue will make the test fairer, more equitable, and more accessible. Whether these developments change colleges’ calculations about the test remains to be seen.
On one hand, recently, Columbia University implemented a permanent test-optional policy, the first Ivy League school to do so. They cite their commitment to diversity and holistic evaluation of applicants as reasons for this decision. On the other hand, now that pandemic-era restrictions have lifted, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology moved in the opposite direction to require standardized test scores once again. The rationale is that recent changes to the SAT have made standardized testing more widely accessible than ever.
Within this mixed landscape, long-term trends are difficult to predict, particularly if the College Board’s changes to the test prove convincing for other colleges besides MIT. But as the conversation around SAT/ACT requirements continues and evolves, and as many Ivy League and other colleges extend their test-optional policies, we may gradually be moving toward a test-optional future in college admissions.
So what does this mean for you? Ultimately, SAT/ACT scores are just one part of the college admissions process. The upside of these 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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