Aug 16, 2017
An analysis of test flexibility and the new college admissions requirements.
At first glance, this sounds like a positive development for the hyper-competitive college application process. But as someone who’s worked within test prep for 15 years and helped hundreds of students with their college applications, I think it’s worth a closer look.
Here’s what we know: going test-flexible instantly broadens schools’ applicant pools. In many cases, this increase skews towards lower-scoring applicants who (absent the policy) might not have considered that specific school or college in general. By broadening their applicant pools, colleges are then able to increase diversity within their respective student bodies. This is undeniably a good thing.
However, when you dig a little deeper, the policy starts to look a bit more, well, insidious.
Despite a deeply flawed methodology, rankings continue to be extremely important to students in selecting which schools to apply to, and because students care, colleges do as well. The industry leader in the field of college rankings is US News and World Reports, although Princeton Review and Forbes have their adherents. Each of the above organizations has a unique algorithm, but the systems do have quite a bit in common.
Generally speaking, rankings are determined by things like: six-year graduation rate, average GPA of the incoming class, student-teacher ratio, faculty holding a terminal degree (usually a Ph.D.) and, amazingly, the peer scoring of similarly ranked college presidents and administrators. More than any of these, however, the top two factors contributing to rankings are:
When a school becomes test-flexible, it invariably increases the number of applications, which in turn increases selectivity.
Consider the following small liberal arts college before and after it became test-flexible:
Admit % (+/-): -7%
But there’s more.
Allowing students to not send SAT/ACT scores tends to strip applicant pools of lower scorers, and omitting these data-points moves SAT/ACT averages of accepted students upward.
Consider the SAT averages of that same school pre and post the policy adjustment:
Pre-Test Flexible Freshmen Avg. SAT Score: 1348
Post-Test Flexible Freshmen Avg. SAT Score: 1365
Change (+/-): +17 points
This particular school didn’t release a breakdown of the student body, so it’s impossible to know what (if any) increase in diversity their policy change had. But even if they did become more marginally diverse, that change was dwarfed by their ranking boost.
So what’s the takeaway?
Test-flexible schools are a mixed bag. While some schools do truly have noble aspirations in shifting policy, others are chasing an easy rankings bump. However interesting it may be trying to separate one group from the other, the more important objective, of course, is for the applicant to find the best fit school for him or her.
SAT/ACT scores -- whatever a school’s policy is or was -- are just one of several factors students/parents should consider when investigating schools. Given how easily rankings can be manipulated, it becomes all the more critical to examine other factors like: popular majors, alumni employment statistics, and average debt upon graduation. These attributes are harder to unearth, but absolutely worth it in the quest to find the right school for each kid. And if diversity truly is a top priority for you, check out this amazing NYT chart on college access index.
Here’s my advice: if your research on a school puts you well below their SAT/ACT score range (-80 pts on the SAT or -2 pts on the ACT composite) and that school happens to be test-flexible, simply applying without scores probably won’t be enough to get you in. However, if you’re in their range, even if only barely, then make sure your application really showcases your talents above and beyond your test scores. Finally, consider that with so many applicants basing their decisions on rankings, a diligent applicant who digs deeper can find extraordinary opportunities (social, financial and educational) at schools that aren’t on other kids’ radars.
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