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How to navigate an unexpected transition to admissions without test scores

October 21, 2020

Many colleges and universities have decided—out of necessity—to offer test-optional admissions for the first time for the fall of 2021. In fact, as of this month, more than 70% of all four-year schools are test-score-optional for next year. While testing has started back up—though unevenly across the country—the initial disruptions caused by COVID-19 mean that as of September, less than half as many high school students had taken the SAT compared to this time last year (about 600,000 compared to 1.3 million). [1]


of all four-year schools are offering test-optional admissions for fall 2021
of all four-year schools are offering test-optional admissions for fall 2021


fewer high school students have taken the SAT this year, compared to this time last year
fewer high school students have taken the SAT this year, compared to this time last year

Further complicating matters, completed tests are heavily skewed toward the higher-score bands this year, when compared to last year. The number of students in the top SAT score band (1500-1600) sits at 59% of where it was last year at this time, while the 1200-1290 score band is at 40%, and the percentages continue to decrease as you move into lower score bands. [2]

[1] and [2]: EAB analysis of College Board data

While test-score-optional admissions policies have been growing in popularity for years (and many institutions were already test-optional), there is a significant amount of preparation, lead time, and adjustments necessary to make them reality—and to stand up an alternative admissions and financial aid process. Many schools are racing to put these important processes in place this year on an abbreviated timeline.

While variation in enrollment size, selectivity, location, and numerous other factors impact the admissions and aid award policies a school must have in place, there are some guiding principles EAB has identified that can provide structure and consistency—as well as ease of implementation—to these efforts.

Guiding principle #1: Determine and articulate what you’re looking for

You can likely articulate what you’re holistically looking for in admitting students to your institution. But ironically, holistic admissions requires that you break down your criteria and specifically identify what characteristics, behaviors, accomplishments, etc. you need to see from applicants to make an admissions decision. This may range from academic performance in certain classes (e.g., certain grades in specific math courses in high school) to the type and level of involvement they have demonstrated with school-based or community organizations.

This transition requires your team to go through the exercise of articulating what type of students you’re looking for and spelling out how that would manifest in their application materials (i.e., what your reviewers are looking for).

This year, this exercise is especially challenging in the context of the remote junior-year Spring term that most (if not all) of your current applicants experienced. In many cases, applicants will not be able to show traditional letter grades for key courses or exhibit engagement and extracurricular involvement in the traditional ways. This poses a major challenge to colleges and universities in the review process and is a great source of stress for current applicants, which is also critical to keep in mind.

Guiding principle #2: Develop a rubric to consistently and efficiently evaluate applicants

EAB recommends developing a rubric to guide holistic and consistent application review.

Among others, one of the challenges schools often cite in implementing scoreless admissions is how much longer it takes to review an application, as well as concerns about consistency in reviewing. EAB recommends developing a rubric to guide application review. This should not be seen as additional work, but instead as a map to support reviewers in doing their work more easily, more consistently, and more quickly.

The rubric should encompass all admissions considerations beyond GPA, so that the score produced by the rubric, when combined with GPA, will provide a simple, streamlined evaluation of each applicant. You can find more guidance on developing a rubric, plus a template you can use to get started on your campus, here.

Guiding principle #3: Train counselors and establish accountability mechanisms


One of the greatest hurdles in a shift to new admissions requirements, of course, is retraining staff and expanding capacity to review applications in a different way. Developing a rubric to guide review is the first step in scaling capacity and an effective way to support staff who may be concerned about changing the way they’ve always done application review.

EAB also recommends being very clear about expectations up front—from how long each review is expected to take, to how many applications staff are expected to get through in a day or week. It’s important to put some accountability mechanism in place—whether that is circulating weekly counts of applications reviewed by staff or requiring a one-off retraining session for those that are not meeting certain efficiency metrics.

There is another important message to emphasize to staff in this transition: that you aren’t just changing the application review process—you’re improving it. While all changes made this year may feel reactive and simply part of your COVID-19 response, this is a new, more specific way of doing business, and that will remain the expectation going forward.

Guiding principle #4: Target limited resources

Holistic admissions often conjures perceptions of hours spent pouring over every aspect of each application. Yes, holistic and scoreless admissions take more time, but there are opportunities to be more efficient. GPA is still the most important aspect of each application, and in conjunction with the rubric, it can be used to streamline the review process.

Particularly at more selective institutions, consider using a GPA cutoff to trigger a more holistic review (e.g., an application only gets a thorough rubric evaluation at 92 or above, although perhaps there are certain circumstances under which you would make an exception to this). This can help staff allocate their limited time more efficiently and avoid going through the full exercise when a GPA may be disqualifying under most circumstances.

Leadership should make these admissions markers clear—outlining where the cut lines are prior to the commencement of application reading—so that counselors know how to allocate their time and when to initiate a full rubric review. This guidance may need to be revisited each year, as some schools have had to adjust qualifications this year due to the pandemic.

Guiding principle #5: Apply the same scoring system to the financial aid award process

One of the most common concerns the lack of test scores raised is how merit aid will be awarded absent what is often a significant factor in the awarding formula. When considerably more weight is placed on GPA—when, for example, you don’t have class rank or a test score—it can dramatically skew the awards, with many more students in the top aid buckets, and less ability to differentiate and calibrate aid. EAB proposes applying the same scoring system—GPA + the results of your rubric—to assigning aid. Assigning scores to the other criteria used to evaluate applications allows you to measure what you want to reward in admitted students and compare them consistently. This case study and resource illustrates how this can be done fairly simply by employing a rubric.

Because reviewers will often skew toward higher scores on the rubric as they adapt to it, this can risk over-awarding after the transition, particularly at colleges and universities that offer rolling admissions. EAB recommends setting time markers when you will review a pool of applications at once—so you can see the larger pool and get a sense of the distribution—before committing more aid dollars than you will be able to sustain. Your financial aid optimization formula can also be tweaked, tested, and reset before being deployed, to manage and prevent over-awarding.

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