If ever there was a college early application round that confounded the pundits, the Early Decision and Restrictive Early Action results caught many off guard in the 2020-2021 admission cycle. Across the country, applications hit record highs at the most selective colleges, and an unprecedented number of high achieving students with strong credentials were deferred or denied from their top choice schools. What took so many by surprise was the impact that one single change to admission policies would have on the numbers: A majority of competitive colleges and universities that had previously required test scores switched to test optional for the 2020-2021 application season. And despite not having access to in-person campus visits, many students were willing to place a bet on a college sight unseen and apply for the early round, with the hopes to improve their chances of acceptance for the fall term.
Accomplished students who were not strong test takers figured this was their shot; suddenly they could envision possibilities previously beyond their reach, especially under-represented students. Even international applications rebounded after dropping off dramatically due to visa restrictions imposed under the Trump administration. Some colleges with mid-November Early Decision deadlines saw a late surge in applications from foreign students who likely viewed the election results as a sign the U.S. would become a welcoming environment once again.
Elite colleges that switched to test optional this year did so more out of necessity than by choice, as test cancelations made it impossible for many seniors to fulfill the testing requirements. Yet with the absence of scores, a metric that had been significant for many colleges, admission officers had to reassess how they would conduct their holistic reviews. Many put greater reliance on less tangible factors such as a student’s classroom and community impact. They looked for insights and nuances shared by teachers through recommendations, while seeking evidence of character and intellectual curiosity through how a student engaged.
Colleges assured students that not having scores would not penalize them, and it appears quite a few were true to their word. The acceptance statistics for three highly selective Boston universities bore that out. 56% of applicants to Tufts University were admitted without sending scores. At Northeastern, two out of three ED applicants chose not to submit test results, and the acceptance statistics reveal the same ratio. For its neighbor Boston University, another 2020 test optional adopter, 70% of admitted students applied without standardized test scores.
It is difficult to assess what this year’s results may mean for the longer term. Signs indicate that more than a handful of elite colleges are considering a permanent change in their testing requirements, having experienced certain benefits from evaluating students in the absence of scores. Some selective colleges, including Tufts, Davidson and Colgate, decided from the get-go to try a three-year test optional pilot, suggesting they approached this admission cycle open to re-evaluating the most essential factors for determining how to craft the ideal class.
Test optional leveled the playing field for accomplished students who were not especially strong test takers, especially from under-represented groups. But colleges also knew they had to find new ways to prime the admissions pump when campuses were abruptly forced to close last March. Pivoting to online tours and information sessions now meant anyone with internet access could partake in a virtual campus experience. Considering the impact of expanded test optional policies and the ability to be part of virtual admission sessions, absent a campus visit, it’s no wonder applications grew substantially and early admit rates declined.
Admission to highly selective institutions, already a bit like playing roulette, will no doubt remain unpredictable into the foreseeable future. Yet the message to students applying to college today is really no different than in recent years: It’s fine to apply to your dream school, but don’t invest in the sweatshirt just yet. Have a back-up plan; take the time to get to know some of the many college gems which probably are more reasonable options. When the selectivity bar rises and increases the competitiveness of admission at the most prestigious colleges, other higher ed institutions see their profiles and desirability rise as well. Contrary to what the college rankings want you to believe, low admit rates say little about the quality of the education or the outcomes for students. The sudden increase in the number of test optional colleges and universities has created more uncertainty in what appears to be an already random process, but I believe it’s a useful reminder that goes beyond re-calibrating one’s expectations. It’s recognizing that success in college and afterwards is truly about what students do and how they seize opportunities, not the institution name embossed on the diploma.