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Incoming students discuss the University's recent test-optional application policy

28 percent of students admitted for Fall 2021 were those who did not submit standardized test scores

Last June, University President Jim Ryan announced that in response to the COVID-19 pandemic all applications for fall 2021 admission to the University would follow a test-optional policy, whereby applicants may opt not to submit standardized test scores without penalty. Many of the now incoming University first years had to choose whether or not they wanted to submit these scores, and close to half chose not to. In the most recent fall 2021 application cycle, 42 percent of the 47,827 applicants chose not to submit test scores, while 28 percent of those admitted were students who did not submit scores. 

Callin Tatah, a high school senior planning to major in biology, chose not to submit test scores because the additional stress of locating an open testing center only exacerbated her pre-existing test anxiety. For Tatah, the test-optional policy curbed a lot of stress when it came time to organize her application without worrying about attempting to get the scores she wanted on standardized tests. 

“I chose to apply test-optional because I honestly have the worst test anxiety and dreaded taking the SAT/ACT,” Tatah said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Though I knew this would mean my GPA and extracurriculars would have to be stronger than usual, overall I felt like without it, admissions officers would take a little bit more time accounting areas I did shine at.”

In this initial announcement, Ryan cited increasing burdens faced by families in light of the COVID-19 pandemic as the primary reason for changing the admissions policy in an effort to allow increased flexibility. 

“Students and families face enormous challenges as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” Ryan said in a statement released with the decision. “This change in our admission system during a year in which all applicants might not have the same access to testing will remove at least one obstacle that might otherwise discourage a student from pursuing [their] higher education aspirations.”

Then, in late January of this year, the University announced that the University would not require applicants for undergraduate admission to submit standardized test scores — this time for those applying through the fall 2022 and 2023 application cycles

“We believe this is a reasonable and humane response to one pressure that our prospective students are facing as a result of COVID-19,” Ryan said in the update. 

A variety of factors played into the decision, including equity concerns for first-generation and low-income students who may not have access to testing resources and the continued impact of the pandemic on the availability of testing dates for high school juniors and seniors. In September and October, 337,000 students were unable to take the SAT due to closed testing centers. The ACT was also forced to cancel testing for thousands of students, and many sites failed to alert students of last-minute testing site closures. 

For high school senior Alp Ekmekcioglu, however, while the test-optional policy was an unexpected consideration, it wasn’t an extraordinary change as he had opportunities to sit for the test. 

“What the test-optional looked like to me … it didn’t look like a ‘submit if you want, submit if you don’t’ but more like ‘submit if you can, don’t if you can’t,’’ Ekmekcioglu said. “I had an opportunity to take tests, so I felt like I was obligated to submit tests and it would be better to submit if I had the chance to do so.”

Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Greg Roberts hoped the temporary policy change will inform the University about whether standardized tests, regardless of circumstance, are a reliable and equitable measure of a student’s performance while at the University. Those who opted not to submit scores were not at any disadvantage, according to Roberts, as the University’s process for undergraduate admissions is holistic. 

“Students who do not submit test scores are at no disadvantage in the application review,” Roberts said. “We review applications in the exact same way, only without test scores.”

A lack of testing scores for applicants who decided to not submit tests simply meant that the admissions committee focused on other aspects of the application while test scores were a part of the conversation for applicants who went through with submitting them.

In an email to The Cavalier Daily, Roberts said that test-optional simply means that testing is not required to be offered admission to the University and stressed that testing was never the most important factor in the application review process — applicants submit essays, transcripts, GPA and class rank if applicable and recommendations. 

“There is no formula or equation in our evaluation process, so there is not a specific weight placed on each part of the application,” Roberts said. “Our review considers the whole student, and we do our best to get to know a student, personally and academically, through their transcript, essays, recommendations and involvement outside of the classroom.”

High school senior Diana Nguyen was able to take an August 2020 test, which she says helped to create a foundation for her testing abilities, but ultimately decided to dedicate her focus on coming up with creative ways to continue extracurricular involvements as opposed to studying for standardized tests.

So, despite having the opportunity to take a test, Nguyen decided that applying without scores  would encourage her growth in other areas and allow her to forego worrying about both paying for and constantly rescheduling tests. 

“When the make-up SATs were constantly getting canceled afterwards, it caused me to relocate my concentration from the SATs to extracurriculars and online community college courses during the summer to save money,” Nguyen said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “It did put a bit more pressure [on other aspects of my application], but these other aspects of my application strongly enhanced my hard-work ethic, passion, significant personal impacts, abilities, etc.”

High school senior Elizabeth Celentano decided to submit test scores to remain consistent with traditional application content from past years, but felt comfortable applying test-optional if she had not been content with her scores. One factor in her decision was the hope that applying with test scores would alleviate the stress placed on other application components, such as essays and transcripts. 

“Part of the reason I chose to apply with my test scores was indeed because I would’ve felt more pressure on other aspects of my application if I hadn’t, so I certainly would’ve been more stressed about the writing portions,” Celentano said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

High school senior Mohammad Murad joined Celentano and Ekmekcioglu in submitting test scores. Murad didn’t feel pressure to submit a score — he did so because his parents encouraged him to take the test early in his junior year, which helped him avoid testing shutdowns — but did observe friends that underwent stressful application processes because of the inability to apply with test scores. 

“It did alleviate stress because I did have test scores and it made me feel better, but I think for other people — one of my best friends couldn’t take the test — and for her she was extremely stressed about it,” Murad said.

All three students feel confident in their decision to submit test scores despite the challenges of the fall 2021 application cycle, but note that not all students were presented with the same opportunities. For both Murad and Celentano, sitting for tests early and having test scores as an application component greatly alleviated stress when the time came to submit applications, but both students also know that their decision was made within their particular circumstances. 

With the University committed to a test-optional plan through 2023, the next two years will be spent studying the value and impact of testing in assessing candidates. Currently, the SAT has an “anticipated” schedule for fall test dates, and notes that the pandemic may affect these dates. The ACT has also released a schedule for 2021 testing dates, but again note that circumstances may change based on COVID-19. 

Tatah is aware of the limits of the test, and when it comes time to decide whether or not to submit scores, applicants should be made aware that standardized testing only provides one snapshot of their potential. 

“To me, the SAT/ACT is only four hours out of four years of high school,” Tatah said. “The SAT/ACT really doesn’t take into account the fact that different students shine — so brightly might I add — in areas that can never be fully highlighted on paper.”