Harvard University will extend for four years a policy begun soon after the coronavirus pandemic emerged that allows aspiring students to apply without SAT or ACT scores — a landmark development for a fast-spreading movement that aims to limit the role of the standardized exams in college admissions.
There is a profound shift underway in how competitive colleges and universities from coast to coast sort through applications and choose an incoming class. The admission tests have not vanished, and perfect scores of 36 on the ACT and 1600 on the SAT retain their power and allure. But test scores are no longer an automatic data point in application files at most prominent schools, a major departure from the situation less than two years ago.
For college-bound students, this new reality could prove liberating or daunting, or both, as they weigh whether to send that 1200, 1300 or 1400 (on the SAT scale) to their dream schools — or send nothing at all.
“Students who do not submit standardized test scores will not be disadvantaged in their application process,” Harvard Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons said in a statement Thursday. “Their applications will be considered on the basis of what they have presented, and they are encouraged to send whatever materials they believe would convey their accomplishments in secondary school and their promise for the future.”
The extension means anyone applying to enter Harvard through the fall of 2026 can choose whether to submit a score. It will give students who today are enrolled in grades 8 through 11 a choice made available to applicants after the global health emergency caused widespread cancellations of admission testing. Harvard officials cited concerns about the pandemic’s continuing threat to testing access as a reason for the extension.
Harvard left open the possibility that a testing requirement could resume for fall 2027, but the chances of that happening could diminish with each passing year. Many colleges and universities are now running what amounts to a multiyear experiment to learn whether test-optional admissions process can diversify classes while upholding educational standards. That includes Columbia and Cornell universities — also Ivy League institutions — which have both suspended testing requirements through the classes entering in fall 2024. Already, schools have learned applications can spike and admission rates plummet when scores aren’t required. Harvard’s admission rate this year fell below 4 percent.
Many schools have made the policy permanent. The University of Chicago went test optional in 2018, before the pandemic, and a chain of well-known schools followed, including Indiana University, Oregon State University, the University of Oregon and the University of Washington.
More than 90 percent of schools on U.S. News & World Report lists of top 100 liberal arts colleges and top 100 universities nationwide are not requiring scores for admission this year. That finding comes from a Washington Post analysis of data from FairTest, a group that supports the test-optional movement. Hundreds of lesser-known schools also have dropped score mandates.
“We’ve concluded that test-optional is here to stay,” said Janet Godwin, chief executive of the ACT testing organization. Godwin said she believes many colleges still want scores to help decide admission and scholarships, and many students want to take the test to show off their academic potential. “People ask me all the time, ‘Is this an existential crisis for ACT?’ And my resounding answer is, ‘No!’ … In our point of view, more information is a good thing.”
The SAT and ACT differ in a few ways, but both seek to assess college readiness through multiple-choice questions on math, English language and reading. Some SAT math problems require test-takers to provide a numerical answer on their own. The ACT includes a science section.
Both exams last about three hours. Generations of students have dreaded them. Now, in a test-optional world, many are feeling more empowered.
Paarth Nair, 17, an aspiring engineering student from Bellevue, Wash., took the SAT three times and obtained what he viewed as a solid set of marks. Then he scrutinized score averages for various target universities and whether he could send a “superscore” that would highlight his best marks from all sessions. Finally, he sent his scores to some schools on his list and withheld them from others.
He also grew fed up with the exercise. “I despise the SAT,” he said. “It wasn’t challenging me in a thinking kind of way.”
Counselors say the choice to send scores or not has also become a major stress point. Regardless of what Harvard or any other college says, many students and parents don’t believe there will be no penalty for applying without a score. It can be devilishly hard to know whether certain scores would be considered excellent for a given school or merely adequate — or, worst of all, harmful to chances.
“The kids just look at you and say, ‘Are you sure?’” said Sean P. Burke, a counselor at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia. “The unknown is what really gets under their skin. It’s just added another layer of like, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know how to handle this.’”
Burke said he helps students check publicly available score ranges for colleges and the high school’s own internal data on college application results. Often it’s a no-brainer to send the scores, he said. But sometimes students say they feel “really uncomfortable” about doing so. Then Burke advises: “Okay, let’s not submit them.”
Proponents say the tests uncover hidden talent, draw all kinds of students into the college pipeline and yield important clues about whether they can prosper in their first year in college. Skeptics call the tests a waste of time, skewed in favor of privileged families who can afford private tutoring. They believe high school grades and the degree of rigor in courses are far better guides to student potential.
In the incoming class of 2021, about 1.5 million students took the SAT and about 1.3 million took the ACT. Compared to the previous class, the totals plunged 22 percent for the ACT and 32 percent for the SAT because of the pandemic. But officials say test-taking is rebounding.
Some colleges want to banish scores from the process entirely. The influential University of California, with campuses in Berkeley, Los Angeles and elsewhere, decided during the pandemic it will no longer consider SAT or ACT scores in admissions even if students send them. The California Institute of Technology is in the midst of a three-year trial of that policy, known as “test-blind” or “test-free.”
Testing agencies have fought that idea. “Preserving a student’s choice to submit scores is important,” Priscilla Rodriguez, vice president of college readiness assessments for the College Board, which owns the SAT, said in a statement.
Relatively few selective schools are mandating scores this year. The University System of Georgia suspended its test score requirement in the last admission cycle but has since resumed it. The State University System of Florida never halted its requirement.
Georgetown University, a prestigious Jesuit school in the District of Columbia, last year granted flexibility for students who couldn’t secure a spot in a testing center. But this year it has taken a stricter line: Scores are required.
Charles Deacon, Georgetown’s dean of admissions, said SAT and ACT scores provide essential context in an era when many applicants boast transcripts with all A’s or nearly all A’s. “Grade inflation was already rampant,” Deacon said. “It’s now through the roof.” He said Georgetown expects to continue its policy. “We may be out there all by ourselves,” he said. “I hope not.”
Jonathan Burdick, Cornell’s vice provost for enrollment, said fears of grade inflation are overblown. His university is running a two-pronged experiment. Scores are optional for entry to schools of arts and sciences; engineering; human ecology; and industrial and labor relations. They aren’t considered at all for schools of agriculture and life sciences; architecture, art and planning; and business. Results so far are encouraging, Burdick said.
Among his admission team, he said: “I have yet to find one who says even for a second that they miss having the test. That’s not a surprise to me. Well-trained readers are able to discern a lot about students’ academic readiness without the extra validation of the test.” His leanings are clear. “We’re better off paying more attention to the transcript,” he said, “and being less impressed with the test score.”
In Wisconsin, state university officials this month extended a test-optional trial for admission cycles through early 2025. André E. Phillips, director of admissions and recruitment for the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said 52 percent of applicants in the last cycle submitted scores. Of those offered admission, he said, only a slightly larger share sent scores: 53.7 percent. He is eager to learn more about the demographics and performance of enrolled students who did and didn’t send scores.
“If we have a couple years under our belt, we’ll be able to draw some significant conclusions,” Phillips said.
High school seniors don’t have the luxury of taking the long view. Those applying this fall and winter are making consequential decisions now.
Julia, 17, a senior from Northern Virginia, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used to discuss testing candidly, said she earned a 1420 when she first took the SAT a year ago but fell short of that mark on two subsequent tries. Her top score was excellent. Still, she discussed with parents and others the pros and cons of whether to send it.
Ultimately, she did. And she was glad to have a choice.
“All in all, that was very calming in a way,” Julia said. “It gave me an optimistic feeling. I figured I might as well send it in and hope for the best. It worked out.” She said she is headed to the University of Virginia next fall.