3 test-optional takeaways for enrollment leaders from the 2021 admissions cycle


3 test-optional takeaways for enrollment leaders from the 2021 admissions cycle


In all the turbulence of the 2021 admissions cycle, test-optional policy was one of the things I discussed most often with enrollment leaders. This topic was especially pressing because schools had to make quick decisions about how to replace test scores in their admission processes—and for how long.

And once institutions made the student and family-centered decision to go test-optional, they had to address some tough questions about how they’d operationalize the strategy. For example, schools that used test scores to award merit aid had to take a hard look at high school GPAs and decide if and how they might recalibrate GPAs to compensate for the loss of test scores. Other schools grappled with how to communicate new, sometimes highly complex, testing and test-optional nuances to students.

Chart showing the number of institutions announcing new test-optional policies between 2016 and 2020

With the 2021 cycle behind us, let’s take a moment to review what we’ve learned from schools’ diverse experiences across the past year. Three clear takeaways emerged about operationalizing your test-optional admissions policy.

1. Simple is better

My colleagues and I spent much of summer and fall 2020 consulting with institutions about how test-optional admissions would impact merit aid strategy. And as many schools found, while it’s easy to say that you’re going to stop requiring test scores, the devil is in the details.

We heard a whole range of approaches to determine admissibility and merit aid tiers without test scores. The chart below organizes those strategies from most labor-intensive for admissions teams to least labor-intensive. On one end of the spectrum you have holistic admissions. On the other end of the spectrum, you have schools that base their admissions decisions and merit aid amounts entirely on GPA, with GPAs that may be recalculated or accepted as submitted.

A range of strategies for going test-optional

Ways schools determined admissibility and merit aid tiers
Slide with the range of strategies for going test-optional

As each university decides which policy is best for their internal culture, resources, and the students they serve, they should also make sure their policy is clear to students, parents, and counselors. That means not just explaining your requirements on your website and in emails; it means making the policy itself as simple as possible.

Earlier this year, I remember looking at one school’s website that claimed the school was test-optional. But when you read the fine print, test scores were required for various scholarships and many different programs—and even for the students who did apply test-optional, about half would be asked to write an additional essay. In other words, while the school claimed they were simplifying the application process by going test-optional, in reality they still had many hoops for students to jump through. You can’t help but wonder how many students gave up and moved on to file applications at other schools with less onerous practices.

As you’re defining your policy, ask yourself: “how many caveats, asterisks, or exceptions do we have?” With students juggling an average of eight applications, it can be hard to keep track of each school’s separate policies. Anything you do to streamline your policy will help make your application and your institution more attractive to students. You can’t just say you are applicant-friendly; you actually have to be applicant friendly, and test-optional policies are one place where schools get bogged down—whether their test-optional practices are new or not.

2. We saw diversity and access benefits

Another big takeaway was the positive impact that test-optional admissions had on diversity and access. EAB survey research found that students of color, low-income students, and first-generation students were significantly more likely to apply to a school for the 2021 cycle specifically because it was test-optional.

Graph showing percentage of students who applied to a school specifically because it was test-optional

While we’d seen similar trends before, this played an outsize role in 2021 because it has helped schools address some of the concerning enrollment declines we saw in under-served and low-income student populations at the start of the pandemic. In the 2021 cycle, test-optional policies helped EAB partners complete more applications and increase admit volume by more than 10% on average compared to 2020. That includes a 12% increase in Black or African-American admits and a 14% increase in Hispanic or Latinx admits.

These data points show that test-optional policies materially impact equity and access for a growing segment of the high school population. If your test-optional future is an ongoing discussion, using the DEI lens should be part of that conversation.

3. Families’ expectations have changed

Now that so many institutions have implemented a test-optional policy, it will be hard to go back—even for the schools that announced that their test-optional policies were temporary, pandemic-era concessions.

It may sound obvious, but I sometimes find myself reminding enrollment leaders that students and their families don’t love you more when you make it harder for them. Some institutions feel that they need to maintain standards like testing or essay requirements to signal their quality to students and parents.  And they feel that students should embrace these requirements as part of a litmus test to prove that they’re worthy. However, in our current market and for the foreseeable future, families have a lot of choices. To attract students, institutions need to think about how they can remove unnecessary roadblocks—which includes requirements that don’t serve a material purpose in the application process.

Many institutions went test-optional for a two-year trial period to buy time to develop effective alternative measures and benchmark student success. Given that quick decision-making was necessary, this approach was the best option for many enrollment leaders. However, many schools may find that regardless of their institutional inclination, the market has decided for them.

Determining your institution’s strategy

For many enrollment leaders, going test-optional in the 2021 cycle was an exercise in choosing among imperfect options. Moving from an institutionally proven and familiar testing policy to one that’s new and untested is unsettling. As schools look to the future, institutional leadership teams will need to reevaluate the best option for their circumstances. And by that, I mean they should consider their true market demand—and not the internal narrative about how students and families should perceive their value. As you have these conversations and consider potential choices, be sure to include not just the financial and class-shaping considerations of a new policy, but also the perspective of prospective students and families as you build consensus around a new approach.

Refine your post-pandemic enrollment strategy

Learn more about the pandemic’s impact on enrollment strategy

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