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Why Students and Parents Need to Know the Latest Buzz About 'Test Optional' Colleges

05/15/2013 05:39 pm ET | Updated Jul 15, 2013

An increasing number of colleges and universities now make standardized testing an option, not a requirement. That is, some colleges leave it to individual applicants to determine whether they wish to take the SAT I or ACT or Subject Tests, and then report the scores to schools.

As of spring 2013, there are close to 850 four-year colleges that de-emphasize or outright ignore SAT I or ACT scores to evaluate their applicants. Many say that they focus on the "whole person" rather than specific data points, such as GPA and test scores. Colleges who take a holistic approach to admissions are likely to be interested in who you are as a person and a student, including your personality characteristics, intellectual curiosity, talents, skills, as well as what you do when you are not in school (as in extracurricular activities, community service, sports and other special involvements). They also take into consideration family background and the kind of school you attend. Colleges with a holistic admissions approach say they treat prospective students as people rather than as numbers, and that they want to make sure there is a good fit between you and their school.

It should be stated that many non-test-optional schools also take other factors into account, and use test scores as one piece of information in their evaluation of applicants. Other schools rely heavily on GPA and test scores to make their admissions decisions, so it's useful to find out the admissions criteria of schools to which you apply.

Highly Respected Liberal Arts Colleges That Are Test Optional

There is an impressive list of well-known, highly respected liberal art colleges that are test optional, including: Bard College, Bates College, Bennington College, Bowdoin College, Bryn Mawr College, Clark University, Colby College, College of the Holy Cross, Connecticut College, Dennison University, Dickinson College, Franklin and Marshall College, George Mason University, Gettysburg College, Goucher College, Guilford College, Hamilton College, Hampshire College, Juniata College, Knox College, Lake Forest College, Lawrence University, Lewis and Clark College, Mount Holyoke, Pitzer College, Providence College, Rollins College, Sewanee (University of the South), Smith College, Susquehanna University, Union College, Ursinus College, Wake Forest University, and Wheaton College (Massachusetts).

Well-Known Public Colleges and Universities That Are Also Test Optional

Even more surprising are the many public universities that now declare themselves test optional. Here are a few: Arizona State University, many of the Cal State Universities including, Chico Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Northridge, Sacramento, and San Marcos, Indiana State University (Terra Haute), Kansas State University (Manhattan), Minnesota State University (Mankato), Montana State University (Billings and Bozeman), the University of Arizona, University of Idaho, University of Montana, University of Nevada (Reno and Las Vegas), University of Oregon, University of Texas (Austin), and University of Wyoming.

For a full listing of all test optional colleges, you can go to the FairTest website.

Test Optional Schools That Use Test Information For Purposes Other Than Admissions

A number of schools have special scenarios associated with their test-optional policy. For example, some colleges allow scores to be submitted, but use the SAT I/ACT only for placement purposes in college classes and/or for academic advising. Others require test scores from out-of-state applicants. Still others require test scores when a student's GPA and/or class rank do not meet their requirements.

Why Colleges Are Going Test Optional

There are a number of reasons why colleges become test optional. According to the FairTest website, schools choose NOT to require applicant test scores because:

  1. Test optional policies promote excellence and equity in the college application process. When colleges take on test-optional policies, they receive more applications from minority, low-income, first-generation students and from those whose first language is not English. Students from these groups tend not to have access to privileges such as test preparation that some of their co-applicants have, and thus often perform less well on standardized tests. Therefore, many college admissions offices see a test optional policy as being a fairer way of evaluating prospective students.
  2. Many colleges have decided that classroom performance (rather than test scores) is a better predictor of academic success at their colleges.
  3. Some colleges prefer to focus on individual skills, such as sports, writing, art, people skills, and personality characteristics, such as creativity, persistence and resourcefulness, that are not revealed in standardized testing.
  4. Other schools suggest that testing is unfair to students who have learning differences, are not good at testing, and/or suffer from test anxiety. Know that many colleges are quite understanding of students who have personal and/or learning challenges that ultimately affect their test scores.

College Board (the folks who offer the SAT) and ACT disagree with the above. They say that the SAT I and/or ACT are very predictive of how well a student will perform in college and even if they are likely to graduate. Even more, they say that the combination of grades and test scores is the most powerful predictor of college performance.

The jury is still out on exactly how and whether to use test information. However, one thing we do know is that the test optional movement is growing with each year, resulting in more and more colleges moving away from requiring standardized tests as part of their admissions process. For the moment, most students still take the SAT I or ACT because testing remains one of the critical elements of what college admissions office look at in making their decisions about who will attend their colleges.