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"Test Optional" does NOT mean "Test-blind", and what it means for merit scholarships

These are crazy times - with a coronavirus pandemic raging, not only have school schedules been disrupted, standardized test schedules have also been affected. As of the writing of this post, the March, May, and June 2020 SAT dates were canceled, and the April 2020 ACT date was cancelled. This decreased availiability of test dates means that students have fewer chances to take standardized tests.


Colleges and universities nationally are aware of this, and many of them have announced temporary test-optional policies. While many students may rejoice that their target schools no longer require the SAT/ACT, what goes unnoticed is that these schools will still consider SAT/ACT scores in an application.


This means that students who elect to forego taking the SAT/ACT are willingly foregoing one of their potential advantages. Worse yet, since many merit scholarships are awarded on the basis of strong test scores, students who forego the SAT/ACT are giving up the potential tens of thousands of dollars of merit-based scholarships! How do SAT/ACT scores still matter? Let's play the role of an admissions officer who is deciding between two applications.


Here's an illustrative profile of a hypothetical college, and two hypothetical students A and B:


Average SAT Score: 1300

Average GPA: 3.75


Suppose that student A has a GPA of 3.85, and submits an SAT score of 1400.

Suppose that student B has a GPA of 3.85 but does not submit any test scores (even though they could have scored a 1400).

Suppose that in all other respects (essay, sports, extracurriculars, etc.) students A and B are exactly comparable.


Since both students have GPAs higher than the average GPA at the college, before considering test scores, both students have equal chances of admissions. BUT, what if we factor in test scores? Since student A submits a score that exceeds the average at the college, student A should have a higher chance of being admitted than student B.


It gets worse. Suppose that the school has a policy of awarding merit scholarship money to the top 10% of admitted students, as ranked by test scores AND GPA. Since student A scored 1400 when the school's average is 1300, we'd think A's chances of getting money are decent.


How about student B? Since the ranking is partially by test scores, student B doesn't even participate in the ranking! Student B's chance of getting scholarship money is near zero.


Good test scores are an extra signal to admissions officers that a particular student has a good chance of succeeding in college-level studies. Students who forego submitting test scores (especially if the student "tests well") are disadvantaged in the admissions competition.


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