With more than 80% of U.S. colleges and universities now offering a test-optional route, it’s natural for applicants to question whether studying for tests like the SAT or ACT is worth it. However, for many students, the term “test-optional” can be quite misleading, as studies have indicated that standardized testing is still a relevant part of the college admission process.
In the absence of the SAT or ACT, the major indicator of a student’s academic ability is their GPA. The issue with this is that all schools have different teachers, grading systems, and difficulties within the same course. An honors class at one school could be the equivalent to a college prep class in another.
Plus, there have been many instances of schools inflating their GPA system so that their students will have greater success in college admissions — a phenomenon only exacerbated by the test-free policies of the pandemic. A 2022 research report from ACT found that the average high school GPA rose from 3.17 to 3.36 between 2010 and 2021.
“Grade inflation is real, it is widespread, and it weakens the value of student transcripts as a single measure of what students know and are able to do,” ACT CEO Janet Godwin shared in a discussion of the report.
It’s true that standardized testing is not the most accurate way to assess students’ intellectual capabilities, but one’s GPA is becoming an increasingly unreliable measure too. Although the SAT and ACT assess a limited number of academic skills, favoring students strong in math and English, it can indicate other qualities of a student, such as strong work habits and persistence. Like any standardized test, students can dramatically improve their scores on the SAT and ACT by taking practice tests, many of which are available for free online.
According to NBC News, colleges still give preference to these students who perform well over those who show no record of standardized testing, meaning a test-optional policy puts applicants who opt out of submitting scores at a disadvantage.
Additionally, a 2021 study published in the American Educational Research Journal found that test-optional policies increased the share of underrepresented minorities among the entering classes of 100 private institutions by a mere 1%. In fact, a research report conducted by UC professors proved that standardized testing for admissions actually help protect the diversity of the student body.
“Because each applicant’s test scores are viewed within the applicant’s local context, they offer a means for protecting the diversity of the applicant pool,” UC Santa Barbara sociology professor Kum-Kum Bhavnani said in prepared remarks from 2020.
Many college applicants also tend to favor standardized testing.
“Now that some schools don’t accept the SAT or ACT, it’s made the application process more challenging and competitive,” high school junior Kevin Park said. “I have to find unique ways to stand out among my peers.”
“It’s nice to have some objective, universal measure,” Irvine student Ella Lee said. “If someone scores highly on the SAT or ACT, you at least know they value academic achievement, and this validates other parts of their application that show they are a strong student.”
Although most colleges no longer require standardized test scores, it’s a good idea to prepare for the SAT or ACT given the resources and time. After all, it still remains a part of your application, just like your grades, extracurriculars, and letters of recommendation.