If non-wealthy applicants are rejected from elite colleges on the basis of “character,” then tests should be eliminated

If non-wealthy applicants are rejected from elite colleges on the basis of “character,” then tests should be eliminated

I’m going to begin this post with dSAT-style text completion.

In a 2023 paper, the Harvard economist Raj Chetty, along with colleagues from Brown University, showed that affluent students enjoy a significant advantage in the elite college admissions process: for applicants who received high academic ratings, comprising a rigorous course load and test scores in the 99th percentile (1510+ SAT/34+ ACT), those with family incomes in the top 1% were admitted to Ivy-plus institutions at a 43% higher rate than middle-class applicants, and applicants in the top .1% were admitted at a 250%* higher rate. The researchers found that high-achieving affluent and non-affluent students applied to Ivy-plus schools at relatively similar rates and received comparable academic assessments; however, wealthy students received significantly higher ratings for “personal qualities,” legacy status, and athletics. Based on these findings, Ivy-plus schools that want to improve the economic diversity of their student bodies should ________

(A) place less weight on non-academic factors that disproportionately favor wealthy applicants.
(B) recruit more heavily at high schools that enroll predominantly low- and middle-income applicants.  
(C) give greater consideration to personal qualities such as empathy and curiosity.
(D) adopt policies allowing applicants to choose whether to submit SAT or ACT scores.

If you approached this question from the standpoint of reason and logic, you probably picked (A): if, all things being equal academically, the emphasis on “character,” along with legacy and athletic-recruitment status, disproportionately favors wealthy applicants, then placing less emphasis on those factors would presumably result in a more even distribution of students from across the economic spectrum.

However, as you may have guessed from the title of this post, this is a trick question.

If you’re an elite private college (other than MIT), the answer is of course (D).


Because the response to basically any form of inequity in the admission process is always to remove standardized testing requirements—even when the data directly suggest that doing so would be counterproductive. Indeed, highly ranked public flagships, which rely more on objective metrics, admit students much more evenly across the economic spectrum.

To be clear, the issue is not a dearth of applicants. Academically qualified middle- and lower-income students are already applying to Ivy-plus institutions in large numbers: slightly more than 11,000 per graduating high school cohort, according to Chetty et. al., with another 13,000 likely to attain high academic ratings if they applied. If those students are not being admitted under the current system because of “soft” factors, not because of their test scores, then there is absolutely no reason to think that academically weaker students—as candidates who do not submit SAT or ACT scores tend to be—would be more likely to gain admission (particularly since Affirmative Action has been dismantled).

So, yes, although there is a direct correlation between family income and test scores, although there are gaping disparities in the type of test preparation applicants have access to, the SAT and ACT are still doing more or less what they were introduced to do: provide talented students from outside the traditional prep-school circuit a way to demonstrate that they could compete academically with their more advantaged peers.

In fact, given the disparities in preparation, Chetty and his colleagues mention that standardized tests probably have even more predictive value for middle- and lower-class applicants than they are given credit for.

I have more thoughts about the paper, but I’ll save them for my next post.

The real winners in test-optional admissions

The real winners in test-optional admissions

Now that the Supreme Court has issued its expected ruling dismantling Affirmative Action, it is reasonable to assume that widescale test-optional admissions are here to stay. While applicants are still free to discuss their ethnic backgrounds in their essays, and colleges may consider that information as part of the holistic review process, the ruling issues a clear warning to schools not to attempt to use such information in an attempt to circumvent either the letter or the spirit of the ruling.

Although the new landscape is murky, and colleges are understandably hesitant to undertake an action that might result in additional court cases, it is also clear that they will take any legally permissible steps necessary to enroll URM applicants. As Bates professor Tyler Harper pointed out in a New York Times piece responding to the ruling, this is likely to result in an admissions process that is even more subjective, opaque, and open to “racial gaming” than it is at present—in the absence of test scores, accusations of unfairly (dis)advantaging certain categories of applicants become much that more difficult to prove in court, and, there will undoubtedly continue to be much wailing and gnashing of teeth about How the Woke Mob Is Destroying the Great American University.

However, there is rhetoric and virtue-signaling, and then there is a more complex reality. In fact, the test-optional movement cuts both ways. On a small scale, it will undoubtedly result in the admission of some underrepresented minority students who would not have gained acceptance to particular institutions otherwise. On a very broad scale, in contrast, those effects are likely to be more muted. From universities’ standpoint, there are benefits to dropping standardized testing requirements that are entirely unrelated to promoting equity, and that are likely to benefit the most advantaged applicants.


Colleges are going test-optional… Do you still need to take the SAT or ACT?

Colleges are going test-optional… Do you still need to take the SAT or ACT?

Given the number of colleges that are going, and now staying, test optional, it’s reasonable for students to wonder whether they still really need to sit for a standardized test. I suspect that there’s a fair amount of confusion surrounding this issue, particularly among students who have limited access to knowledgeable admissions guidance. Given that, this piece is intended to provide some general guidelines for when traditional standardized testing is, and is not, necessary.

So, do you need to take the SAT or the ACT?

The short answer: probably.

The long answer: probably, but it depends.

If you are only planning to apply to schools in the University of California system (which no longer considers SAT/ACT scores), and there is effectively no chance that you will later decide to apply elsewhere, then no, you do not need to take the SAT or the ACT.

If you are applying to less-selective test-optional schools (>50% acceptance rate) and can comfortably afford to attend without financial aid, then the choice of whether to take the SAT or ACT is up to you (particularly if you have strong grades and good AP scores).

If you are so staunchly opposed to standardized testing that taking the SAT or the ACT would represent an intolerable violation of your deepest-held principles, then you do not need to take one of those tests (although if you fall into that category, you presumably would have applied only to test-optional schools pre-pandemic anyway).

If you do not fall into one of those categories, then yes, it is a good idea to take the SAT or the ACT, or—a less good idea—both. (And for the record, I am not just saying this because I’m the author of a series of SAT and ACT books. Really.) (more…)

Who really benefits from test-optional policies?

Who really benefits from test-optional policies?

Over the past few weeks, the test-optional dominos have continued to fall, with Harvard grudgingly deciding to consider applications from students who have faced exceptional obstacles in taking the SAT or ACT, and Princeton even more grudgingly following suit. As of now, the Ivies seem pretty clear about the fact that these are one-year policies only, and that applicants applying in the fall of 2021 and beyond will be expected to take the tests as usual.

At other other selective colleges, however, this year’s policies are part of a multi-year test-optional trial period, and so I think it’s worth taking a hard look at the implications of these policies in a non-Covid context, and to ask who really benefits from them. (more…)

The University of California will drop the SAT and ACT: putting the decision in context

The University of California will drop the SAT and ACT: putting the decision in context

So it’s official: The University of California—the country’s largest public university system, serving several hundred thousand students—has voted to phase out standardized testing.

The SAT and ACT will be optional for freshman applicants for applicants in 2021 and 2022; for 2023-4, test scores will be used only for out-of-state-students and to determine scholarship awards; and will be eliminated completely in 2025. If a new, UC-created exam is not ready by that point, then no exam will be considered.

This is obviously a major shakeup in the testing industry, although not a completely unforeseen one. Historically, there has been tension between the University of California and the College Board, with discussions of abandoning the SAT dating back to the early 1990s. More recently, there has been considerable speculation about whether the UCs would continue to require the SAT or ACT essay. Since last winter, however, additional pushback against the use of standardized testing has ramped up. (more…)

The Coronavirus might cause more schools to go test-optional (but you should take the SAT or ACT anyway)

The Coronavirus might cause more schools to go test-optional (but you should take the SAT or ACT anyway)

A couple of weeks ago, as soon as it became clear that there was no way the spring SAT and ACT testing schedule could proceed as normal, I started wondering how the Coronavirus pandemic would affect the trend toward test-optional admissions policies.

No sooner had the thought crossed my mind than an Instagram announcement popped up stating that Case Western had decided to go test-optional for students applying in the fall of 2021. At Case, the policy currently applies to those applicants only; policies for future classes will be determined next winter. Tufts has also announced a similar policy involving a three-year trial period.

From what I understand, it seems likely that the pandemic will consist of multiple, overlapping waves of outbreaks in different regions over a fairly extended period, rather than occurring in one single massive wave, and so it would not be at all surprising if these policies were ultimately extended. (more…)