Score “Optional” Colleges
More and more schools are becoming “score optional,” a trend giving hope to many parents and students petrified by the prospect of tackling the SAT and ACT. I’ve gone on record many times to decry the SAT and ACT in the college admissions process – they’re irrelevant and largely dysfunctional exams – and I’d love to believe that these schools were leading a new front of college application process. Unfortunately, this shift isn’t going to reduce the importance of these tests in the slightest.
The Effects of Score-Optional
Why would a school go score-optional? Though they might flout their newfound philanthropic attitudes toward student merit, the reality isn’t quite as charming. The real reason: larger applicant pools.
Reduce the barriers to entry, and you’ll get a lot more people trying to enter. Students who might never otherwise consider applying to certain schools suddenly have the go-ahead. What does this mean for the school? Better rankings. More applicants = higher rankings, plain and simple. Furthermore, it allows schools to cherry pick highly desirable students who might otherwise not make the cut – athletes, big donors, etc. – without hurting their score numbers.
This move isn’t for students – it’s for the colleges. Colleges that get more applicants get higher rankings. But there’s another sweet benefit: “score optional” colleges end up with higher average SAT and ACT scores.
Aside from low admission percentages, high entering SAT and ACT scores lead to higher rankings. Any school clever enough to secure these high scores will be furthering their ascent up the rankings ladder. But isn’t this a paradox? How could schools with “optional” scores, who’ve seemingly lowered the score bar, end up with higher scores?
When schools become “score optional,” they automatically guarantee that the ONLY students submitting their scores are the ones with EXTREMELY HIGH SCORES!
Think about it: if a student has low scores, he or she just won’t submit them. But if he or she has amazing scores, they’ll get thrown in the ring. As a result, the applicant pool looks like so:
Majority of applicants: no scores.
Small portion of applicants: amazing scores.
The applicants who don’t submit their scores don’t have them factored into the overall equation. The students who DO have amazing scores get factored in. Therefore, these schools aren’t just ensuring that they get more applicants – they’re also getting the pick of the litter in terms of high submitted scores!
What this means for students:
If you have a pretty strong application (good GPA, good extracurriculars, good essay, etc.), but weak scores, it might seem as if a score-optional college would be the dream. You get to show off all your strengths without submitting your weaknesses! But applicants who think this way don’t realize that college applications are a game of COMPARISON, and NOT of absolute value.
It’s not how good you are – it’s how good you are compared to everyone else.
The overall applicant pool is the be-all end-all of your chances of admission. What does the applicant pool look like at score-optional colleges?
- A select handful of students who absolutely awesome SAT and ACT scores.
- An enormous, inflated group of students without good scores, but with much stronger overall applications.
It’s not just that you’re still competing against students with awesome scores. It’s that you’re also competing against an artificially inflated pool of students with extremely competitive all-around applications.
This leaves you with zero advantage. In many cases, it puts you at a distinct disadvantage. Now, you’re still dealing with the kids who have awesome scores, but you’re also dealing with an enormous group of kids who all feel that their overall application is just as competitive as yours!
“Score optional” schools are like dating sites that make height optional for men. Like height, SAT and ACT scores are metric-based factors that barely define the quality of a human being. But at the end of the day, most women, if given the choice, will go for taller men, the same way that most colleges will go for students with better scores. If a school has to pick between a student with no scores, or a student with awesome scores, whom do you think they’ll consider first?
What should you do about it?
I hate to be bearer of bad news, but the swing toward “score optional” isn’t a benefit for students – it’s a benefit for colleges that are clever at marketing. The score-optional trend will have almost no effect on your chances of admission. But the path is still clear. Here are my recommendations:
- Make sure you have a solid GPA. Score-optional schools still weigh your GPA more heavily than any other factor. Do everything you can to maximize it.
- Take these tests seriously. Any student is capable of getting high SAT and ACT scores – if they follow a consistent, effective, and long-term study schedule. You can’t cram for these tests, and you shouldn’t. There’s no need for SAT and ACT prep to derail your life – if you can put in 20-40 minutes a day over the course of 6 months, you’ll be in incredibly good shape. Any student can find this time. Before all else, realize that effective SAT and ACT prep exists, and that it can be affordable, simple, and low-stress – if you start early and follow a program that works with your schedule.
- Unless you’re a “red carpet applicant,” don’t expect a leg-up from this new trend. The students who benefit most from this trend are the hyper-recruitable students that I like to call “red carpet applicants” – incredible quarterbacks, violinists, published authors, award-winners, mega-donors, and other students who have a blue chip so tempting that the rest of their application doesn’t really matter. The score-optional craze allows schools to accept these students in droves without hurting their metrics. If you’re one of them, Merry Christmas!
- Be sure to develop your overall application. Do you have targeted, well-developed extracurriculars? Good essays? Great recommendations? A long history of philanthropy and community service? Have you picked the right schools, and made sure that you’ve expressed your interest in them, specifically? If you’re going for score-optional, your overall application needs to be much stronger than it would otherwise need to be if you had high SAT or ACT scores.
It’s a shame that a PR move on the part of colleges has gained such widespread acceptance as a “student-focused” trend. However, so long as you’re armed with the right expectations, and don’t take the bait, you’re going to be OK!