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Unhappy with Your Score? More Colleges Going SAT Optional

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Although it’s still considered the most widely used college admittance exam in the country, the SAT is slipping in popularity and many colleges are going SAT-optional, giving prospective students the choice of whether or not to submit their SAT scores during the admissions process.

According to the College Board, the non-profit organization which owns and publishes the SAT Reasoning Test and SAT Subject Tests, the exams are a suite of tools designed to assess academic readiness for college, but many school officials feel otherwise.

“These exams provide a path to opportunities, financial support and scholarships, in a way that’s fair to all students. The SAT and SAT Subject Tests keep pace with what colleges are looking for today, measuring the skills required for success in the 21st century,” reads the College Board’s SAT and SAT Subject Tests Overview.


Owned by the non-profit organization ACT, Inc. and first administered in 1959 as a competitor to the SAT, the ACT is also a national college admission and placement exam. A student’s ACT scores are supposed to provide an indicator of “college readiness.” The ACT (No Writing) consists of four multiple-choice tests: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. The ACT Plus Writing includes the four multiple-choice tests and a Writing Test.

A student’s decision of which test to take may be determined by the admissions criteria at their colleges of choice, but a growing number of colleges allow students to submit scores for either test—including Harvard and Yale. In fact, Newsweek reported that 2010 marked the first time that slightly more entering freshman took the ACT than the SAT—1,568,835 versus 1,547,990.

Do SAT Scores Indicate College Success?

According to Test Scores Do Not Equal Merit: Enhancing Equity & Excellence in College Admissions by Deemphasizing SAT and ACT Results, a 1998 study conducted by FairTest, the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, some public universities that decided to deemphasize the SAT and ACT have found high school classroom performance to be a noticeably superior way of forecasting academic success in college. The study found that these tests add little useful information to a student’s high school record and relatively few admissions decisions change with the addition of test scores.

A 2009 Princeton University study found that eliminating standardized test scores as a factor in the college admissions process would lead to more racially and socioeconomically diverse undergraduate populations. Using data collected from 250,000 applications to 10 selective colleges and universities, Princeton sociology professor Thomas Espenshade and Office of Population Research statistical programmer Chang Chung considered the effects of two possible admissions policies: “SAT optional” and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

“Under both of these admission strategies, we find that there is certainly an increase in racial diversity on campus,” Espenshade told the Daily Princetonian newspaper. “There is also an increase in socioeconomic diversity on campus.”

Based on her own study of schools in Texas that do not consider SAT scores, sociology professor Marta Tienda found that high school grades are in fact more accurate predictors of college success, mimicking results of the 1998 FairTest study.

Largest Non-Profit College Goes SAT Optional

In February 2011, Chicago’s DePaul University became the largest non-profit college in the United States to go completely “test optional,” reported the Chronicle of Higher Education. DePaul, the largest Roman Catholic university and one of the 10 largest private universities in the United States, will no longer require applicants to submit standardized-test scores for admission. Beginning with applicants for the freshman class of 2012, students may choose to write short responses to essay questions designed to measure “noncognitive” traits, such as leadership, commitment to service, and ability to meet long-term goals instead of submitting SAT or ACT scores.

A few years ago, DePaul incorporated noncognitive variables into its admissions process for the first time and subsequent research convinced university officials that the nontraditional measures did more than the ACT or SAT to predict the success of low-income and minority students at the university. “These are as good an additive predictor, and for some students, they’re a little better,” Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president for enrollment management, told the Chronicle. “Admissions officers have often said that you can’t measure heart. This, in some sense, is an attempt to measure that heart.”

SAT and ACT Optional Colleges

In 2009, USA Today reported that several hundred colleges had gone test-optional for at least some students, while the vast majority of colleges still use standardized tests in admissions. At the time, the College Board said only 45 schools are “truly test-optional for all.”

“Colleges are trying to increase the number of applicants and diversify their population,” Kristen Campbell, executive director of college-prep programs for Kaplan Test Prep, told Newsweek in 2010.

Wake Forest University went test optional in 2009 to send a signal it wants a broader range of students, and it worked. Applications rose 16% after dropping the SAT and ACT— and up 70% for black students. “You’ve got to have different people from different backgrounds with different talents,” Wake Forest Provost Jill Tiefenthaler told Newsweek. “The kind of students we want here are sometimes going to be great test-takers and sometimes not.”

As of winter 2011, FairTest reports that over 830 four-year colleges and universities do not require the SAT or ACT for admissions. Some schools exempt students who meet grade-point average or class rank criteria while others require SAT or ACT scores but use them only for placement purposes or to conduct research studies.

FairTest’s list of test-optional colleges can be found here.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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