By Neil Chyten
It seems as if I have been saying the same thing for the last 1000 years: test optional is not the same as test blind. Colleges that identify as “test optional,” many of which adopted that policy in response to the scarcity of testing opportunities brought on by COVID-19, will accept and consider test scores if you submit them. If your test scores are good, they will help your case for admission. If they are not very good, then by all means do not submit them. The choice is yours, and having a choice gives you an advantage in college admissions.
Let’s consider two different scenarios. Let’s first consider a student with a 3.8–4.0 GPA, strong extracurricular activities, a record of taking challenging courses, likely to get excellent recommendations, and a varsity athlete in two sports. In this case, it would not be necessary to submit test scores since many of the other factors weigh very positively in his favor. On the other hand, strong test scores could add yet another factor to an already impressive profile. In this hypothetical situation, I would recommend against sending scores unless they were in the top 5%.
Now, let’s consider the case of a student with a 3.2 GPA, very few meaningful extracurricular activities, and unlikely to receive anything more than perfunctory recommendations. In this case, test scores can serve as proof that the student is capable of college level work, yet the likelihood of getting into a highly competitive college is still extraordinarily small. If this student has test scores that are at least in the top 25%, I would recommend sending them. For some competitive colleges, having a test score will provide some degree of comfort to the admissions folks.
For students who are shooting for colleges in the “most competitive” range, you could be doing yourself a disservice by not taking standardized tests, or you could do yourself a favor by doing extremely well on these tests. In this respect, very little has changed. As I have been saying for years, test optional is not the same as test blind. If you can take a test and do well, it will benefit you to submit those scores.
I was never a big fan of puzzles, and this year is one of the most complex puzzles in the long history of college admission. There are so many extra factors to consider, in addition to all the factors that we have had to consider traditionally. For our international students, we have visa nightmares brought on by strained international relations, the logistical nightmare of traveling to the US on flights that are hard to obtain, quarantining once you get here, and figuring out how to navigate an academic landscape that combines in person and online learning. We also have to consider safety. How does one stay safe while on campus? How does one safely eat in the cafeteria, buy books in the bookstore, and walk through a crowded campus center in order to get to classes?
Furthermore, where students apply to college has also been affected by COVID-19. In many cases, it makes sense for international students to reach higher, since colleges are going to be actively seeking full-paying students coming from overseas. This will affect the ED and EA decision-making, and also will positively impact a waiting list strategy. It may also make sense to transfer, given the dire economic condition many colleges, even top colleges, find themselves in as a result of this global pandemic.
I counseled my first student back in 1984, and oh my how things have changed in the past 36 years. I will say that one thing has been consistent over that time—change. Change has taken many forms over the years. However, no changes have been larger or more daunting than those that are occurring in 2020 and 2021. To tell you the truth, I like change because change represents opportunity for those who can figure out how to navigate it. COVID-19 is no exception. The key is to see things from the perspective of colleges. Understand how they perceive the changing admission landscape, and you will be well on your way to successfully navigating the uneven terrain brought about by COVID-19. When it comes to test scores, don’t succumb to the temptation to simply brush them off as unnecessary. It’s the best of all worlds. If you are unlikely to do well on standardized tests, then don’t take them. Do everything possible to strengthen all the other aspects of your application. On the other hand, if you tend to be a good test taker, then do everything in your power to take and ace as many tests as possible. Doing so will certainly not hurt your cause and may help you stand out from the crowd of students who took advantage of the opportunity presented to them by COVID-19. Colleges don’t like excuses. Colleges do like candidates that have demonstrated an ability to overcome adversity. There has been no greater adversity in our lifetimes than COVID-19. My recommendation to you is that you show colleges that you have the ability to overcome COVID-19, the stress associated with the difficulties of standardized testing, and the strain put on you by the inconvenient pandemic that is roiling our world.