Does the Rise of Test-Optional Schools Mean the Decline of the ACT?
I won’t keep you in suspense. The answer is no. The truth is, the ACT and SAT aren’t going anywhere. They will continue to be critical metrics for colleges when evaluating prospective students.
If all you wanted was the short answer to a yes-no question, there you have it. I just saved you seven minutes of reading. However, read on if you don’t believe me, or to gain a better understanding of why standardized tests will continue to be important for college admissions and the impact of some schools becoming “test optional” or “test flexible”.
Why the ACT Is Still An Important Part of College Admissions
From time to time, a parent or student will ask me why colleges use standardized tests as part of the college admissions process. Or I get an email from a parent asking about a news article they saw about another school going test optional. Understandably, they wonder if this signifies a trend.
Over time, will the ACT and SAT go by the wayside? No. The reason is purely mathematical. The number of college applications is on the rise. Generally speaking, more students are applying to more colleges than ever before. Admissions offices are deluged by applications. Having numeric, standardized measures of evaluating students is necessary from a practical standpoint.
Class rank and GPA are numeric factors, but High School A may be vastly more challenging than High School B in another city and state. And Student 1 may have taken significantly more challenging classes to earn her 3.6 than Student 2 did to earn his 3.8. Weighted versus unweighted GPAs — used by some (but not all) high schools – adds additional complexity.
The ACT and SAT are standard nationwide. Every student everywhere takes the exact same test, creating a handy standard metric that level-sets the view of prospective incoming students. Is it the only factor a college uses in determining acceptance? No, it’s not even the most important. It’s #3 after GPA and a rigorous course curriculum. But it is important. Even at “test optional” and “test flexible” schools, as we’ll see next.
So, What About Test Optional Schools?
Over the past 10 years, more schools have become test optional, and even more have become “test flexible” (meaning they’ll accept standardized test scores other than the ACT or SAT). View a complete list of the test optional schools online. But some context is needed to understand why schools go test optional and what it means for you as a college applicant who wants to earn acceptance and hopefully some merit aid along the way.
With nearly a decade’s worth of experience in college planning and having immersed myself in the world of college admissions, there are a few different groups of types of schools that emerge as I look through the list of test optional schools.
A good number of schools on the list are those that specialize in art, fine arts or design. Art institutes, music colleges, conservatories, the Julliards of the world, don’t place significant emphasis on the ACT and SAT in determining which students they’ll accept. Understandably, if you want to be an artist, dancer, musician or composer, your portfolio and talent is a much better predictor of how you’ll fare than your ACT/SAT score. This just makes sense, and it’s not a recent trend.
Another type of school on the list is national private liberal arts colleges, like Bowdoin (ME), Colby (ME), Smith (MA), Bryn Mawr (PA), Cornell (IA), Lawrence (WI) and Beloit (WI). Many of these schools are highly selective and very well-regarded. They also tend to have substantial endowments to help first-generation, low-income and students of color gain access to quality education. In an effort to encourage those students to apply, they’ve become “test optional” or “test flexible”. (A number of national universities have become test optional or test flexible for the same reason.) But some would argue that the test optional strategy has not achieved the desired result of making these schools more diverse. In fact, it’s had some unfortunate unintended consequences.
Another large group of schools on the list of test flexible/test optional schools are regional universities, those schools that tend to primarily draw students from nearby, within their region. Generally, these schools tend not to be highly selective. Becoming test optional may help them woo students from a broader geographic area, and perhaps woo more students in general. But even more alluring is their propensity to offer generous merit aid to those who meet certain criteria, including those with higher ACT/SAT scores.
It’s also important to note that even though a school is test optional or test flexible, many students who apply to these schools still submit ACT/SAT scores. Those that don’t invite closer scrutiny on their other “stats”. In other words, if I don’t have your ACT/SAT score to consider, I’ll pay much closer attention to your GPA, course rigor and your essay. So those all better be in good shape.
On the list of test optional/flexible schools are a number of schools that I like a lot and tend to refer to often when working with students on choosing a college. For example, the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) and the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. However, these two schools are on my short list in large part because they’re super solid schools that offer incredibly competitive out-of-state merit aid to those with solid GPAs AND good ACT/SAT scores.
Bottom line, no matter where you’re going to college, it’s hard to deny the fact that earning the best possible ACT/SAT score you possibly can will put you in a better position not only for acceptance, but to earn some merit aid that makes college more affordable.
What does “test flexible” mean?
A number of schools on the list are actually test flexible versus test optional. They’ll accept other forms of standardized scores, provided certain conditions are met. For instance, here’s one such quote, “Test Flexible: SAT/ACT not required if other college level exams specified by school, such as SAT Subject Test, Advanced Placement, or Int’l Baccalaureate, submitted — contact school for details.” Here’s another one from a “test flexible” school on the list, “SAT/ACT may be required but considered only when minimum GPA and/or class rank is not met. SAT/ACT required for some programs.” In other words, numbers still matter. Some test flexible schools only require SAT/ACT scores for out-of-state applicants, or only for certain programs or fields of study. But their appearance on the list is not at all an indication that ACT/SAT scores have no place in their consideration of incoming students.
ACT/SAT Impact on Merit Aid
Even if a school is test optional and you’re accepted, merit aid is nearly always dependent upon ACT/SAT scores. The higher your score, the higher the likelihood that you’ll earn merit aid. Many of the students I work with for ACT Test Prep are as concerned about improving their chances for merit aid at their chosen schools as they are about earning acceptance to those schools.
At The End of the Day, The Best Strategy For Both Acceptance and Merit Aid is to Earn the Best ACT Score You Possibly Can.
If you have a stellar GPA and you rank in the top of your graduating class, but you bombed the ACT/SAT, restricting your college search to test optional schools probably isn’t the silver bullet strategy you’d hoped for. But should you choose to go that route, here is your shopping list of schools.
For the rest of you, I still advocate strongly for doing everything you possibly can to earn your highest possible ACT score.
And for those of you for whom this isn’t achievable, there are still many solid college options out there that will provide a great education and a solid next step toward a bright future. As much as a huge chunk of my job is about ACT Test Prep, my underlying mission and purpose is to help each and every student find their best college fit, their University of You. If you’re looking for guidance on college planning, schedule a free consult and let’s talk college.