College entrance testing has long been the bane of existence for young people, as their ability to achieve a competitive score has held the key to college acceptance. Hit a good number—at or above the posted average for an institution—and you've got a good chance of getting in. Or so the perception goes. Fall short, and you need to hope that other factors on your application will carry the day.
For years, tests like the SAT and the ACT have cast long shadows on the rest of the credentialing process. The shame of it all is that these tests are grossly misused. By their current design, they are diagnostic tests whose purpose is to give admission officers a better handle on whether a student can do the academic work in the first year of college. Period.
As such, their greatest value is in assessing the academic readiness of the relative handful of students who would seem to be marginally able and prepared to do the work at a given college.
Instead, they are, as a matter of convenience, the competitive credential du jour—presumed measures of intelligence used to burnish institutional images. The calculus is simple: the bigger the number the more desirable is the student. As a result, most young people prep for tests, not to prove that they can do the work, but to meet a mythic standard.
[Read 6 myths of standardized tests.]
That said, admissions officers at colleges and universities around the country know they can make good decisions about whom to admit without the aid of test scores. Their own validity studies show that, among the factors that predict success in the first year of college (rigor of courses, grades, year-end exams, writing samples, letters of recommendations, etc.), test scores carry very little weight.
The good news is that nearly 850 institutions (and the list grows by the month), at all levels of selectivity, acknowledge this reality by making tests optional in their respective admissions processes. I was at one of those schools when it went test optional. The day we made the announcement was like a day of liberation—we were free from the tyranny of numbers and could look more critically of the substance of the individual in making our decisions.
As you consider your college options, keep in mind the opportunity present in test-optional admissions. The following are five reasons to take test-optional schools seriously:
1. The use of test-optional policies is an articulation of the manner in which institutions value performance and potential in their respective selection processes. This doesn't mean they are easier to get into. It does mean that test results will not stand alone as the barrier to admission.
2. Test-optional schools are typically holistic in their selection processes. This means they are looking at the measures of the whole person and, as such, are more likely to acknowledge differences in learning styles and opportunities for broader and more inclusive involvement.
[Explore the U.S. News guide to finding the right school.]
3. The absence of a testing requirement opens the door for a more creative, if not interpretive, presentation of your credentials. While you still need to present a compelling academic record, there is a greater chance that important themes in your application will be considered—and valued.
4. They are good schools that feature excellent learning environments. Some of the most venerable academic institutions in the country are test optional (see the complete list of test-optional colleges at FairTest.org).
5. Applying to test-optional schools means you can relax just a bit. While you might need to be attentive to score requirements at other schools, the pressure to hit a "big number" will not dominate your consciousness as you apply to test-optional schools.