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By Elizabeth LaScala

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About this blog: I post articles to offer timely and substantive college admission guidance on important topics and issues. Originally from New York, I have a B.S. from Hunter College in NYC and advanced professional degrees from the University of...  (More)

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The Illusion of Test Optional Colleges

Uploaded: Jul 1, 2021
With the COVID-19 epidemic and the onset of nearly universal distance learning for all high school students, both parents and students have been relieved to hear that many college admission procedures are going “test optional” this year. While “test optional” does mean that standardized tests like the ACT and the SAT are not required, these tests remain optional which means the student can elect to submit them as part of their application.

Despite going “test optional” nearly all test optional colleges will carefully consider standardized test scores when they are made available by applicants. Test optional does not mean test blind. In general, most students with profiles strong enough to think they have some chance of admission to more competitive test optional colleges should try to prep for and attain strong test scores to enhance their applications. Also, since many test optional colleges may nevertheless require standardized test scores for some applicants, it is best to check with each college you plan to send an application, in order to know what is expected. Examples of reasons why some applicants may be required to submit scores to some colleges include those seeking to be admitted to certain majors (e.g., engineering, computer science), recruitable athletes, students applying to the school’s honors college, and those seeking need-based or merit awards, among others.

In past years, admissions staff in test optional colleges were able to do their jobs and evaluate applicants who do not send scores by focusing on the high school transcript to give insight into the applicant’s academic preparedness. However, with the onset of the coronavirus came distance learning, and with distance learning came some pretty rampant grade inflation. Many teachers could not teach all relevant material remotely and often teachers had no truly effective way to test their students’ knowledge. Lacking valid assessments, some teachers dropped final exams, some may have discouraged AP testing and sometimes, maybe even often, gave students better grades than they might have otherwise, so as not to punish students for conditions that were beyond their control.

Many students and parents have breathed a sigh of relief that many colleges are going test optional for applications submitted this fall. While this stance is understandable given that so many students were unable to take standardized tests in the spring and summer due to site closings and other obstacles, this decision has put admissions staff in a difficult spot. Due to the reasons mentioned above, admissions staff may find it much more difficult to interpret and rely upon high school grades as one of the few, often the only, objective measure of student achievement. Rigor of coursework (honors, AP classes), extracurricular involvement, honors and awards, letters of recommendation and the quality of college essays will be weighted more heavily than before. If one or more of these areas are nonexistent or mediocre, it will be harder for a student to gain admission. This means that admissions staff will be thankful when an applicant sends standardized test scores because it will help them evaluate the student’s application and make a stronger case for admission. If you are a rising high school senior, pay attention to these well intended words of advice and invest some of your available resources in good test preparation this summer.

Now more than ever, a college education is an essential first step toward a fulfilling career. I am an expert at college matching and have made it my business to stay up to date and informed on the dramatic and ever-changing impact COVID-19 is having on higher education. Staying current and compassionate are critical to providing my students and their families with the information they need for wise decision-making. I encourage you to contact me now for a courtesy consultation.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Danville Mom, a resident of Monte Vista High School,
on Jul 5, 2021 at 2:10 pm

Danville Mom is a registered user.

A. UC's and Cal States do not accept Letters of Recommendation, so they are not even needed for those applications, unless requested.

B. "Extracurriculars" is a totally separate category from volunteer work, which was not mentioned in the blog. Volunteer work and its impact on your life is key (vs. # of volunteer hours), especially for UC's and Cal States.

I'm surprised Ms. LaScala did not mention volunteer work in her blog.

As well, many do not realize that taking classes that are intense in 10th and 11th grade and then taking it easy in 12th grade looks very bad to UC's and Cal States. (UC's and Cal States don't count 9th grade GPA or courses at all.)

UC's want to see increasingly difficult course loads, with a strong 12th grade year. If you load up on AP and Honors classes in 9th, 10th and 11th, you will not have a strong 12th grade program. It is #5 on this list of how UC applications are reviewed:
Web Link

Also, many do not realize that high school students are compared to their peers in the SAME high school. That means if you are going to Dougherty Valley High, you are compared to other DVHS students, not SRVH or MVHS students. That means that you are going to be compared to students who are generally doing a stronger amount of course work (DVHS), with higher GPA's, extracurriculars, etc., than the other SRVUSD high schools. Sad, but true, since DVHS is known to have a higher-achieving population of students in general out of all the SRVUSD high schools.

UC's/CSU's/colleges want more and more every year; I think students should just enjoy themselves, go to a community college & transfer as a Jr. in my opinion. Mental health is a HUGE concern with all of these demands!

A side note: My child was accepted to all UC's a few years prior to the pandemic chaos. They had a high GPA, a high ACT, extracurriculars, volunteer work, and several awards.

Posted by Elizabeth LaScala, a blogger,
on Jul 5, 2021 at 2:43 pm

Elizabeth LaScala is a registered user.

Dear Danville Mom,

Thank you for your comment. My article was focused on test optional colleges, and not the UC or CSU systems which are test blind--meaning even if you have test scores to submit, they will not use them in the admissions process. However, your comment made me see that pointing out the difference between test optional and test blind, and using the UC system as an example, could have strengthened the original article.

In terms of volunteerism, I consider volunteer work to be an extracurricular activity and so having listed extracurricular involvement, I did not tease it out volunteering as a separate factor.

I totally agree that colleges look for a strong senior year and I always recommend my clients not 'water down' their last year in high school.

Thank you again for your comment.

Elizabeth LaScala

Posted by Danville Mom, a resident of Monte Vista High School,
on Jul 5, 2021 at 3:15 pm

Danville Mom is a registered user.

Thank you Ms. LaScala. However, it is my understanding that volunteer work should never be considered to be in the same category as extracurricular activities, especially for UC's and Cal States.

Also, I didn't see your article mention that although UC's and CSU's are now test blind adn others test optional, standardized test scores may still be used for the proper college placement in math and English courses. This is something to consider when determining if your child even needs to take the ACT or SAT.

Personally, I think all colleges and universities should be Test Blind this upcoming year (and last). There is a total discriminatory factor with these standardized tests (SAT/ACT) for those with visible and invisible disabilities related to the pandemic, as well as those in lower socioeconomic status and people of color related and unrelated to the pandemic.

Posted by John, a resident of another community,
on Jul 30, 2021 at 8:39 am

John is a registered user.

Is a college really "test optional" if it expects an applicant to have passed a certain number of AP exams?

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