Until recently, college entrance exams, namely the SAT and ACT, had long been a required component of college applications in the U.S. Considered an accurate measurement of college readiness, the exams could help, hinder, or be the deciding factor in one’s chances of acceptance. During COVID-19 in 2020, most universities relaxed the requirement and made the tests optional. Since then, a rather inconsistent approach has evolved, with universities opting to either reinstate the test requirement, keep it optional, or remove it altogether. For students and parents, these differences can further complicate an already overwhelming application process. In this article, we explain the various test-related admissions policies and provide a strategy that will ensure successful admission to college, while giving students options in case their top choice does not work out.
Relevance amid the controversy
Before COVID-19 was ever a headline, the SAT and ACT exams underwent criticism for being unfairly designed in favor of privileged students. Year after year, test score averages indicated that poorer populations performed lower than economically advantaged ones. Additional controversy included impersonators taking tests for students, tabloid-worthy scandals, and the exposure of sophisticated cheating systems designed to beat the SAT. While critics have called for the elimination of the test requirement, defenders of the exams state they are accurate predictors of college performance, and both organizations insist they are constantly working to make the exams more fair and more securely administered. Many universities continue to see the exams as valid, worthwhile indicators of college readiness, while others have revised their policies in favor of decreasing or eliminating their relevance.
Understanding the policies
Students will want to research the test requirements of each university they favor in order to properly apply. The basic admissions policies are: test required, test optional, test flexible, and test blind. A test-required policy means the SAT or ACT is required, and if not included, the application will not be considered. Selective universities that require the tests include MIT and Georgetown University. With a test-optional policy, the test is not mandatory, thus the high-school academic record becomes the most important application component, followed by the standard criteria (essay, rec letters, extracurriculars, and interview, if applicable). A university that is test-flexible allows students to choose which standardized test scores they submit according to the school’s list of acceptable tests (which vary by university). These may include the SAT or ACT (or sections of those tests), Advanced Placement (AP) exams, or International Baccalaureate (IB) exams. Finally, a test-blind policy is one that does not require standardized test scores to be submitted at all. For example, as of 2021, the University of California system does not accept test scores as a part of the admissions criteria.
It is worth noting that for universities where the test is optional, a student could significantly improve their chances of acceptance with a strong score. Of course, this could backfire if the student doesn’t perform well, but taking the PSAT or SAT/ACT diagnostics can aid in predicting performance. Among the top universities that have declared a test-optional policy through 2024 are the eight Ivy League schools (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Yale), as well as Stanford, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Boston University, and UNC Chapel Hill. Many other universities remain test-optional through 2023. A complete list of test-optional universities can be found online.
How to proceed
As university requirements continue to evolve, parents and students would do well to err on the side of caution and have the student prepare for and take one or both exams at least once. Even if a student feels 100% certain about the school they will be attending, and that school does not require a college entrance exam, plans can go awry. Since students typically take the exams in the spring of 11th grade and apply to schools in the fall of 12th grade, taking the tests will allow them to consider more options during application season. An additional benefit of taking the SAT or ACT is that strong performance can still open doors to top-tier universities, scholarships, and high-paying occupations.