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A graphic of the word "denied," stamped in red, against a white background.

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As students have gotten their college decisions back, those who were wait-listed or rejected from their top-choice colleges inevitably wonder why. Often a college’s reasons have nothing to do with a given applicant (the college might have needed more history majors, a tuba player, or someone from North Dakota). Colleges have so-called “institutional priorities,” and these preferences remain hidden from public view.

From my years of experience guiding families through the application process, I can tell you this—not only do colleges keep their preferences hidden, they often outright lie.

Every consult meeting I have with a family interested in test prep inevitably confronts one of those lies when a parent asks the most unsurprising question: “Do test scores still matter?”

This is a fantastic question to ask given that most colleges in the U.S. went test-optional at the start of the pandemic and have not (yet?) returned to requiring test scores (though Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgetown University, Dartmouth College, Yale University, Brown University, Cornell University, Harvard University, California Institute of Technology, Stanford University and others have returned to requiring test scores). The question is also particularly relevant given the mostly unified chorus from test-optional colleges that “students who do not submit test scores will not be disadvantaged.”

But rhetoric and reality often diverge. The case of test-optional admissions is no exception.

Yes, students now have the option to apply without test scores. But is a student equally likely to get admitted without them? No. The explanation is common sense and this is what I tell every family I work with. If a college does not value SAT or ACT scores, then the college would not use those scores. It would be SAT/ACT-blind, not SAT/ACT-optional. The fact that the college does use SAT/ACT scores tells you everything you need to know: Test-optional colleges value SAT/ACT scores.

Confessions From the Elite

A few colleges that have gone back to requiring standardized test scores have begun to tell the truth about the reality of test-optional admissions.

Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions, Jeremiah Quinlan, said on a recent podcast he became more and more convinced that Yale was not “being honest about the reality of our admissions process to students and parents” because they were “denying 98 percent of the students who are applying without test scores.” Over the past several years, Yale had a three times higher admit rate for students who submitted test scores compared to those who didn’t (6 percent versus 2 percent).

Likewise, Cornell’s internal research revealed that, even when holding other factors constant, “submitting test scores significantly increases the likelihood of admission [to its] test-optional colleges.” A summary of the research offers useful advice: “Given this finding, it seems prudent for those applying under the test-optional policy to send in their test scores.”

But most test-optional colleges still obfuscate about this issue, simply creating confusion for students with no clear information provided. For example, Duke University states that “choosing not to have SAT or ACT scores considered will not impact your admissions decision.” Yet, 50 percent of new students enrolled at Duke in fall 2023 did submit SAT scores and another 31 percent submitted ACT scores—a combined total of 81 percent. Meanwhile, Duke’s admissions website tells prospective students to “Take the SAT or ACT” and “Buy a study guide and begin taking practice SAT or ACT tests.” The contradictions are paramount and speak to the misleading nature of the alleged policies.

Students Benefit From Submitting Scores

Despite a college’s rhetoric, in reality, test-optional colleges have an admission preference for students with high test scores. And while all students can benefit from this preference, disadvantaged students may have the most to gain from submitting strong test scores. According to Dartmouth’s data, a disadvantaged student with an SAT score between 1450 and 1490 is 3.7 times more likely to get admitted if they submit their score than if they withhold it. And, yet, as Cornell found in its data, students’ choices to submit scores vary “by social background factors such as the type of high schools they attended, their family incomes, and their access to and use of guidance counselors.” Among Cornell applicants who scored above a 1400 on the SAT, for example, just 62 percent of Black students submitted scores, compared to 74 percent of white students and 79 percent of Asian students.

And why do colleges have such a strong preference for students with strong test scores? Students can no longer stand out to top colleges with grades alone because most students who go to college have A averages. GPAs are not standardized: students come from more than 20,000 different high schools, were graded on different GPA scales, were taught by different teachers, and took different classes. How can colleges make any accurate comparison of academic preparedness based on grades when students come from such various contexts? They can’t. That’s why a standardized test that evaluates all students on the same foundational knowledge of grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, reading and data analysis is always going to be useful.

If colleges care about academic excellence, then it’s just common sense that they use the best information available to help predict which students are the most academically prepared to succeed at their institutions.

To all the families who ask “Should we submit test scores? Do they even matter?” I reply with a resounding, yes, test scores still matter, especially if you want not just the option to apply to a top college but to get into one.

David Blobaum serves on the board of directors and is the director of outreach for the National Test Prep Association. In 2013, he co-founded the tutoring company Summit Prep.

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