In my short stint of working with high school students wanting to study abroad, primarily the US, I have seen a slow but sure upsurge in the number of students enquiring about “TEST OPTIONAL” schools. With the SAT exam slated for a redesign and the new format being introduced in March 2016, the question of standardised testing assumes more significance than ever. Although, there has always been debate about the merits or the lack of it of standardised testing, I will abstain from going into the depths of that. Instead, I want to use this space to write about what “going test optional” means for international students and why is it that more Indian students are enquiring about the test optional policy.
Like most factors pertaining to “holistic admissions”, there is some ambivalence surrounding the interpretation of “Test-optional”. A test-optional admissions policy means some applicants can choose not to submit SAT or ACT scores. For starters, it is imperative that an applicant look up the website of every individual school to understand their specific test optional policy. There are some schools like Bowdoin, Wake Forest, Bates and Wesleyan that do not require standardized scores to be submitted by both domestic and international students. Brandeis, Smith and Colorado college though test optional for domestic applicants require standardized tests for international students. Still others like Bryn Mawr, Hamilton, Middlebury and Colby give a choice of taking and submitting one of three exams listed.
Out of the over 800 hundred colleges and universities in the US that no longer require students to submit standardized test scores, if one reads the test optional policies of some of the more selective colleges, it is difficult to conclude with confidence that these colleges have dismissed the value of standardised tests altogether.
Bowdoin college mentions regarding their test optional policy “This policy allows applicants to decide for themselves whether or not their test results accurately reflect their academic ability and potential. For candidates electing to submit them, test scores will be reviewed along with other indicators of academic ability.” What does this option translate to for international students?
Bryant University mentions on its website “While we recognize that standardized tests accurately measure aptitude for many students, there are many still whose talents are not measured by such tests. Students who feel their standardized test scores are not an accurate representation of their academic achievement or talent will now have the option of completing two to three short answer questions in place of submitting their test scores to Bryant.” I would interpret this statement to mean that there are “many students” for whom testing is a useful predictor and who should take the tests and submit the scores to make a strong application. The next question is that who are these students for whom testing is useful?
The 2013 SAT averages by race and ethnicity, released by College Board, clearly show Asians/Asian Americans with the highest mean score. It is evident that this group does well on the SAT. Since Asians are expected to do well on the tests, not submitting these scores could well be an indication to the college/university of the student having scored below their mean score. This could go against the applicant since from a statistical perspective, overall acceptance rates are getting lower. Most colleges and universities that are test optional are also highly selective. Universities don’t reveal so directly but they will never take in too many students from one particular country, because diversity is an important objective. So, an international student’s application has to stand out not only amongst the many applicants from their own country but also amongst the other international applicants. It becomes important to be able to critically differentiate oneself from the horde of other strong applicants and this can be ensured by submitting test scores. Secondly, standardized tests remain a uniform and an authentic way to judge the credentials of international students, as there is a lot of fraud in some countries when it comes to transcripts. It becomes tough to tell the academic credentials of one school from the other because mostly the top 10% does not mean the same at every school.
I thus always tell my students (all of whom are from India) to give the full gamut of tests to keep their best options open irrespective of whether or not they apply to test optional colleges/universities. I feel that testing requires patience, commitment and practice and at times the decision to not send in the scores might even sound like the student made a last minute and unplanned decision to apply. This is becoming true of many Indian students. Getting into the top league universities/colleges in India is tougher than ever as cut-offs are at an all time high. Students from the good schools in cities like Delhi prefer to apply abroad than languish in some Indian college with average quality teaching and programs. Some of these students are unaware of the requirements and the rigor of the application process abroad and they are mostly the ones who start late and are unable to spend a balanced amount of time and resources for preparing for standardized tests and hence end up enquiring about test optional policies. Our effort is on to encourage students to start planning and taking action early and to prepare themselves to make every component of their application strong, which of course includes standardized tests as well.