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Articles / Applying to College / List of Test-Optional Colleges Grows

List of Test-Optional Colleges Grows

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 10, 2014

In the world of marketing higher education, the race is on to gather as many applicants as possible. One obvious reason for this is so that colleges can deny more applicants. The goal is to lower the schools’ acceptance rates. More applicants rejected = higher “selectivity.” In turn, this most likely will raise a college’s standing in the seemingly all-important world of rankings. Of course, the 500-lb. gorilla of college rankings lives at U.S. News. There are also myriad other rankings published each year. The goal, as with U.S. News, is to bring attention to whatever print or online publication is presenting the rankings. In other words, let’s sell more magazines or bring additional eyeballs to a Web site.

Marketing higher education is like marketing any other product, except with college, the aura of the product appeals to both intellectual pride (“Our son just got his Masters in climate change studies.”) and economic practicalities (“A B.S in chemistry or related field is required for this position.”). To paraphrase P.T. Barnum, nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the gullibility of the American public. Case in point: for-profit “colleges.” For example, check this ABC News story:

Santa Ana, California-based Corinthian Colleges Inc. announced that the campuses being closed operate under the Everest name and are scattered in 11 states. The company faces multiple state and federal investigations …

… Last month, the Education Department put Corinthian on heightened financial monitoring with a 21-day waiting period for federal funds. That was after the department said it failed to provide adequate paperwork and comply with requests to address concerns about the company’s practices. The department said the concerns included allegations of falsifying job placement data used in marketing claims to prospective students, and allegations of altered grades and attendance.

Some students left comments on the Everest Facebook page expressing concerns that their degrees would be worthless. Corinthian was reaching out to those students individually and asking them to call for more information …

One has to have empathy for the students and their families involved in this debacle. However, the point here is to try to understand why colleges do what they do. From my viewpoint, regardless of the rhetoric pouring forth from college marketing departments, it all comes down to … three guesses … money. Either directly or indirectly, institutions of higher education need money to sustain and justify their existence. How they go about getting those funds varies greatly, from naming buildings after wealthy alumni to no-nonsense, no-pretense annual giving.


But I digress. The actual content of my article here is not so much how colleges market themselves but rather how many schools are moving into the so-called “test-optional” category. Those two subjects are not unrelated, at least from where I sit.

A test-optional admissions policy means that applicants can choose not to submit SAT or ACT scores. Of course, there are exceptions and variations on the test-optional approach. If you need more resolution on what test-optional means, check these details for more clarity.

I’m always curious to see what others think about seemingly significant college admissions policies. That’s why I was intrigued by some of the comments from posters to this College Confidential (CC) discussion forum thread entitled “No, the SAT is not Required.” More Colleges Join Test-Optional Train. It references a USA Today article by the same name. The original poster of that thread poses this thought and question:

Many people consider standardized testing to be a staple in the college admission process, but some universities now perceive it as irrelevant. Does standardized testing serve a true purpose in admissions, or is it really unnecessary?

Let’s see what some equally thoughtful CC posters have to say about that.

First of all here’s part of what USA Today‘s Justin Peligri says at the outset of his article:

Colleges with a test-optional policy span the country, including top-tier school such as Bowdoin College, Wesleyan University and American University.

These decisions to eliminate standardized testing alleviate the pressure on many high school seniors to tally high scores on the SAT or ACT exams …

No mention of marketing angles here, but we’ll overlook that, since I stated some of my case above. Back to CC respondents replying to the original poster …

– I don’t foresee the SAT and ACT being eliminated anytime soon at a larger scale. There just isn’t a better way to compare students at a national scale while being as efficient. The article suggests that you could focus more on, extracurricular activities, GPA, or writing samples. All of which are terrible assessments for distinguishing student’s future academic success considering every high school is different and offer more or less rigorous classes/activities. Additionally, student’s chance at success will be drastically affected by their family residence since typically low-income districts’ schools offer less AP classes, less extracurriculars, and etc. I mean at least with standardized testing if you get a perfect score even at a low-income school, you stand a far better chance at being accepted into a good university …

– The only downside of getting punished by the US News is that colleges would potentially lose applicants. I’ve seen firsthand how international students look for colleges: go to US News, research schools ranked from 1-150, and then apply to a bunch. Sarah Lawrence isn’t even on the radar of these students who would otherwise be good fits for the school. Despite everything that’s wrong with the US News rankings, it still remains a valuable resource for students who have no idea about how to proceed …

[Here’s one of my favorite posts (for obvious (highlighted) reasons):

– Has anyone really thought about why more colleges are going test optional? If a student who applies has high GPA but low SAT scores what do you think the student will do? The student will not submit her low SAT scores. Now if this same student does exceptionally well on the SAT guess what, she will submit her test score.

The test-optional college will now be reporting only the high scores submitted by high scoring applicants to the college rating services. The result is the test optional college will get an unfair boost in rating because its reported SAT scores will be artificially inflated because not all enrolled freshman’s test scores will be included in the reporting.

Test optional status is a back door method for colleges to increase their rating position. I can respect colleges that do not require SAT test for admission but this Test-Optional status is an unfair attempt at manipulating the ranking services.

– … I recognize that scores carry varying utility at different schools. For instance, a large school that receives a huge number of applications may not be able to spend the time wading through recommendations, lists of ECs and essays to make a first cut, the way a school like Bates, which receives on the order of 5,000 applications and strongly recommends an interview can. I’m not saying that standardized test scores are useless, just that some (an increasing number) of schools don’t find them particularly useful to their processes in many cases.

– What rings interesting is that the polar opposites probably don’t work. Just using test scores or not using test scores at all doesn’t seem to provide the best situation for evaluating students at the undergraduate level. Even though there is much lament about the Holistic process and by no means is it unflawed. Have the schools evolved to a place where the process in place may be the best available when one considers what else is available and the host of variables that are in play.

– [Regarding so-called “holistic” admissions]: … It’s often easiest to start with Harvard https://college.harvard.edu/admissions/applyAnd you can read their What we Look For page. At issue, imo, is that many kids apply without a careful self-assessment against what the colleges tell us they look for. They share responsibility for assumptions, including that stats and hs standing predominate and that the app is just another survey. It’s convoluted by amateurs responding to chance-me threads. All an astute observer can truly tell a kid is whether or not he/she appears to be qualified to apply, based on the limited details the kid provides. You don’t see the app, LoRs, or writing. All sorts of factors determine admits. When you have a pool that includes the final thousands of highly qualified applicants- and only x seats- there is no predicting, the colleges can cherry pick the ones they want most. Read what H says they want. All kids should be reading this for their target schools. And then realistically assessing.

As H puts it, “We seek promising students who will contribute to the Harvard community during their college years, and to society throughout their lives.” It’s obvious that not every applicant who hits the Submit button will.

You can dismiss this, you can apply all sorts of formulas, but the decision rests with the adcoms.


If I were adding my two cents to this thread, I would take the cynical approach and question exactly why colleges choose to drop standardized test requirements. As I’ve said many times, things aren’t always what they seem to be and the quest for higher rankings, more prestige (whatever that is), greater selectivity, lower acceptance rates et al is almost necessarily related to the equally, if not more important, quest for money. Call me cynical, if you will, but in all truth, I am.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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