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More students applied to top colleges this year. How making test scores optional opened the field.

June 04, 2021

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Akosa Obianwu dreams of studying public health, and he has admission offers in hand from Johns Hopkins University and several other competitive schools. Now this 18-year-old high school senior from Maryland is waiting to hear in the next few days from the Ivy League.

His story, of perseverance amid pandemic upheaval, would be one to celebrate in any year. The son of Nigerian immigrants, Obianwu excelled in Advanced Placement courses at Bishop McNamara High School in Prince George’s County, played alto saxophone in the school band and jazz ensemble and immersed himself in a group called the Black Cultural Alliance.

Yet there’s a twist that illustrates a moment of profound change in the rules of the game for college admissions, with application totals smashing records at highly selective schools. Obianwu didn’t submit SAT or ACT scores when he applied. The coronavirus pandemic derailed admissions testing plans last year for him and hundreds of thousands of other college-bound students. After enduring many cancellations, Obianwu managed to take the SAT once in the fall. He secured what he called a good result, but he said it could have been better with more tries.

When selective universities nationwide suspended testing requirements, a concession to the chaos, Obianwu felt relieved and emboldened to stretch his ambitions. He applied to 11 schools, including Hopkins, the University of Maryland, the University of Southern California, the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard University.

“I feel like this year gave students a lot of confidence to apply to schools they really want to,” Obianwu said. He bristled at the notion of being defined by the 1600-point SAT scale. “When you take away the score,” he said, “they look more at the student.”

Far more students than ever applied this year to the most selective colleges and universities. In recent days they’ve been learning the results. The Ivy League, which this year is entirely test-optional, will release decisions on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Eastern time.

The Common Application, an online portal for hundreds of colleges, reported in February that it had processed nearly 6 million first-year applications for its returning member schools, up 11 percent from the year before. There were a little more than 1 million unique applicants. They tended to apply to more schools this year than previous years.

It is too early to tell, admissions officials say, how much the application surge will reshape the demographics of enrolled classes at prestigious schools. There will be a massive sorting and sifting during the next several weeks as students weigh offers and schools pull from their wait lists. It is worth noting, too, that many less-selective schools are already scrambling to fill seats.

But what seems clear is that the test-optional movement has opened doors for many students from traditionally underrepresented groups. It has also raised angst for affluent families whose children typically hold many advantages in the competition, such as private tutoring to raise test scores and alumni connections to designate applicants as preferred “legacy” candidates.

At private New York University, about 13 percent of more than 95,000 applicants were admitted to its New York campus. (The university also has campuses in Shanghai and Abu Dhabi.) About half who applied and half who were accepted did not submit test scores, said MJ Knoll-Finn, NYU’s senior vice president for enrollment management and student success. In previous years, the university had required test scores but allowed applicants to use various kinds of exams, including AP tests, to fulfill the mandate.

She said 29 percent of those admitted were Black, Latino or Native American students, up from 27 percent the year before. There were similar increases, she said, among admitted students who have significant financial need or who are the first in their families to go to college.

“Our commitment to diversity is deep,” Knoll-Finn said.

At the private Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offers went out as usual on Pi Day, March 14, despite a crushing workload for the admissions team. MIT had 33,240 applicants, up 66 percent from the year before. It offered admission to 1,340, or 4 percent. Last year, the rate was 7 percent.

Stu Schmill, dean of admissions and student financial services, said he expects MIT’s next entering class may have slightly more Black, Latino and Native American students than the previous year’s share of 26 percent. He attributed the spike in applications in large part to MIT’s decision in March 2020 to end permanently the use of SAT subject tests in its review. The College Board, which owns those specialized exams, subsequently decided to discontinue them. MIT also allowed applicants for the first time to choose whether to send an ACT or SAT score. That was a temporary but major shift for a school that puts a premium on demonstrated talent in mathematics.

“Testing is not the only way to do it,” Schmill said. “We obviously still have to look at a student’s academic record, how students have done in their curriculum, what their curriculum has been. We wanted to use all available information to make the best decisions we could.”

The University of California at Los Angeles was buried in freshman applications — almost 139,500 — up 28 percent from the year before. Like other UC campuses, UCLA omitted consideration of SAT and ACT scores this year. It was a groundbreaking shift for the public system. There is no data available yet on UC admissions offers.

But Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, vice provost for enrollment management at UCLA, said her team was pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the deliberations went. In past years, “tests have always been used to confirm your thinking about how the student is doing academically,” she said. “It didn’t drive the process.”

The University of Virginia provides another case study in flux for public flagship universities. More than 48,000 applied to the school in Charlottesville, up 15 percent from the year before. The university offered admission to about 9,900, or 21 percent. It also set up a sizable wait list. As of Thursday, 4,177 applicants had confirmed they want to be on that list.

The target is an entering class of 3,788. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever gone into a summer so uncertain about what’s going to happen,” said U-Va. dean of admission Greg W. Roberts.

Roberts said he was pleased with the diversity of applicants and those offered admission. About 1,180 offers went to students who identified as Black or African American, he said. But he expects the total to grow as U-Va. makes offers from its wait list. Last year, U-Va. offered 1,128 slots to African American applicants.

Roberts cautioned that the story is not done. Getting students to enroll requires strong financial aid for those in need, which is a U-Va. priority, as well as significant outreach. Pandemic travel restrictions make that more difficult.

With surging applications comes another strain: huge numbers who were denied. “Kids who, in a lot of cases, have done just about everything right might not get the decision they had hoped for or deserved,” Roberts said. He has heard lately from “a lot of families who are heartbroken or sad.”

College-bound students from around the country and their parents, especially those from privileged backgrounds, are dealing with those emotions. These students are in all likelihood admitted somewhere, just not necessarily where they imagined.

“So many more of them were very surprised this year by the number of rejections and wait lists they received,” said Debra Felix, a college admissions consultant based in Rockville, Md. She said she had spoken with one father who was “stunned” at the outcome for his daughter. A huge issue in the past year, she said, has been disruption of the SAT and ACT. “Elite families were frantic last spring and summer because they couldn’t find a place to take the test,” Felix said.

That meant either settling for one test score, perhaps lower than desired, or taking the perceived risk of going without scores.

Adam Jaffe, 18, of St. Louis took the ACT before the pandemic hit. But he wasn’t thrilled with his score. Then the public health crisis forced widespread testing shutdowns. But it didn’t matter. Northwestern University, his top choice, announced that it wouldn’t require test scores.

“It was this huge burden off my shoulders,” Jaffe said. “I felt I could really focus on the parts of me that I wanted to tell and was proud of and had worked so hard on the past four years.” His service as a student representative to the local board of education. His participation in speech and debate competition and his time as catcher on the baseball team. His academic record in several AP classes.

Northwestern admitted him. “It ended up being great,” Jaffe said.

The SAT and the ACT remain powerful forces, offering students a standardized numeric readout of how they stack up in terms of college readiness. There is intense debate over the value of those numbers, but many students will continue to seek them, and many colleges will continue to use them for admissions and scholarships. “It’s important that students have the choice to distinguish themselves by submitting scores,” the College Board, which owns the SAT, said in a statement.

There are signs that the test-optional movement will continue to gain momentum. U-Va., for instance, has announced it will be test-optional for two more years. So have numerous other schools. The creator of the Fiske Guide to Colleges, in a major shift, announced on March 18 that the next edition will omit average SAT and ACT score ranges for the schools it features. “They can’t be considered reliable information,” said Edward B. Fiske, a former New York Times education editor.

Well before the pandemic, the University of Chicago announced in 2018 it would no longer require the SAT or ACT. This year, 35 to 40 percent of its 38,000 applicants did not submit scores.

James G. Nondorf, vice president for enrollment and student advancement at the university, said the shift has paid huge diversity dividends in unexpected ways. Before the change, he said, the urban university might enroll about 10 students from rural areas in any given entering class. This year, Nondorf said, he expects to have 100.

Among his admitted students, Nondorf said, about 17 percent are African American and 19 percent Latino. Both shares are up compared with the year before.

To the common question from skeptical parents and students of whether scores are really encouraged, even though they’re not technically required, Nondorf said: “Test optional means test optional. You have to focus on reviewing what‘s in the file, and not worrying about what’s not in the file.”

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