“Test-optional” will always be challenging, and it’s not your fault


“Test-optional” will always be challenging, and it’s not your fault

Considerations for enrollment leaders—and students and their families—as they think about test-optional policies

At a recent EAB-hosted virtual gathering of enrollment leaders, there was lots of discussion about how challenging test-optional policies have been to administer this year. Participants bemoaned how hard it has been to communicate effectively about test-optional rules with students and families.

Everyone agreed that some schools could be clearer about their policies, at least in certain channels and settings (I elaborate on that opportunity in this blog post from the other week and in a recent conversation with Eric Hoover in the Chronicle of Higher Education).

But even when schools’ policies are articulated as clearly and as prominently as possible, this group of Enrollment Services partners felt that students and families are still confused and unsettled. A few participants blamed the overall decline in trust in institutions in general—and in higher education in particular.

“It’s Varsity Blues!” one exclaimed, referring to the pay-for-admissions scandal that engulfed several top-ranked universities and B-list celebrities in 2019.

As the parent of a high school senior though, I would argue that the problem is deeper-seated: the issue, at least in some cases, is the inherent ambiguity in the idea of “test-optional” in the first place.

‘But should we take the test?’

My older daughter has not had the opportunity to take a college admissions exam, thanks to pandemic-caused cancellations of test dates this spring and fall. However, all the colleges she is applying to have communicated they will be “test-optional,” at least for this year, and that the lack of test scores will not disadvantage candidates.

Still, deciding whether to we need to find some way for my daughter to take a test this fall has been a hot topic of conversation in my household for months.


Consider this scenario: an admissions officer must choose between two candidates who seem equivalent on paper in terms of their academic and personal qualifications, and one has a test score while the other one does not. Is it really possible that the student with a test score will not be advantaged? Why shouldn’t colleges go with the surer bet?

Even with all the information we have at our disposal, it’s hard to be sure that my daughter would not be at a disadvantage if she didn’t take an admissions test.

Those who think that this is only an issue for the most selective institutions are ignoring the scope of the problem. When EAB has surveyed Generation Z students about their greatest sources of anxiety in the college admissions process, even before the pandemic, “admission” consistently ranks second only to “cost” as a source of concern, regardless of the selectivity profile of the schools that the students are applying to.

No perfect solutions

Enrollment leaders are left without a perfect solution for how to communicate the “test-optional” reality, at least for this cycle, even if they are able to achieve the operational resolution and campus alignment that let them communicate about “test-optional” clearly to students and families in the first place.

One option would be to go further to the guardrail of “test-blind” admission, where enrollment teams will not consider test scores at all, but few institutions are likely to consider such a move. The University of California system announced their plans to become “test-blind” for the 2023 entering class; even in that case though, the UC system noted that “some scholarships may include test scores as a factor in selection.” If even “test-blind” is no silver bullet, it seems like enrollment teams—and applicants—are going to have to live with some level of ambiguity about the role of test scores in admissions, now and for the foreseeable future.

And what should students and families do? It’s not for me to say, but after long debate, my senior decided to try to take an admissions test about 100 miles away this coming Saturday.

More test-optional resources

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