More Test-score Optional Progress

University Testing

Statistics from the most recent application cycle at Muhlenberg College demonstrate the success that this selective, liberal arts college in Pennsylvania has experienced since going SAT-optional (See Examiner, Summer 1996).


A record applicant pool in 2001 of 3,892 students marked a growth of 31% since 1996, the last year the SAT was required. Even with an increase in the size of the coming year’s freshman class, the larger number of applications resulted in a more selective admissions process: in 2001 the acceptance rate reached an all-time low of 35%, down from 67% in 1996. Coupled with these figures were steady increases in the numbers of applicants of color, a trend which Dean of Admission & Financial Aid Christopher Hooker-Haring says could be explained by the SAT-optional policy inviting members of underrepresented groups to apply to Muhlenberg.


Muhlenberg’s experiences provide further evidence that schools adopting test-score optional policies can maintain, and even improve, academic quality. Each year since 1998 the average freshman GPA for SAT “non-submitters” has closely paralleled that of “sub-mitters”, with a difference between the two groups in favor of “submitters” ranging from .19 to .33 points. Yet SAT “non-submitters” received combined SAT scores of 200-210 points lower than their peers who included test scores with their applications. In other words, substantially lower SAT scores did not translate into significantly lower freshman grades. In fact, the school’s overall combined SAT score profile – which includes the scores of both “submitters” and “non-submitters” – has actually gone up 35 points since 1996. Students who choose not to submit SAT scores must present a graded writing sample and participate in an interview.


Hooker-Haring praises the effect the SAT-optional policy has had on Muhlenberg’s admissions process: “I can’t attribute all of those increases in application numbers to the SAT-optional policy, but I can say that clearly this hasn’t hurt us one iota in making the case with students and parents. It’s been a very popular policy, whether applicants ultimately choose to submit or not. It gives some of the power back to students – it’s a very student-friendly policy.” This fall, Muhlenberg’s faculty and Board of Trustees will review research data from the past five years and make a final decision on the role of test scores at the school.


A broad applicant pool with strong academic credentials marks the first year of Mount Holyoke College’s SAT-optional policy. In the spring of 2000, the institution decided to give applicants the choice of whether or not to submit test scores, voicing concerns about the test’s limitations: “Because the SAT does not measure the range of intellectual and motivational qualities that our educational environment requires, we wish to de-emphasize its role in our admission decisions” (See Examiner, Spring 2000).


Data compiled by the college’s admissions office show a 10% rise in total applications for the class of 2005, with applications from students of color jumping 37.5%. Eighteen percent of applicants chose to withhold test scores; students of color took advantage of this option at slightly higher rates. At a recent New England Association of College Admission Counseling conference, Holyoke Dean of Admission Diane Anci credited the school’s decision to make test scores optional as a central reason for the rising interest in the college. Mount Holyoke’s large increase in applicants stands in contrast to Wellesley College, which reported slight growth, and Smith College, where applications declined.


The academic credentials of this year’s incoming class have remained strong, with an average high school GPA of 3.62. Around half of all enrollees ranked in the top 10% of their high school class. These figures roughly mirror last year’s incoming class, when SAT’s were still required.


In an effort to broaden its admissions requirements, Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, recently made the SAT I optional for applicants. “We are taking this step to encourage a wider and more diverse range of applicants,” stated Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Richard Fuller.


In lieu of requiring SAT I scores, the college will give individuals the option to submit one of the following: ACT scores, three SAT II exams, three Advanced Placement (AP) exams, or three International (IB) Standard or Higher level tests. Designed to make “the process fair and less anxiety-producing for prospective students,” the new policy comes on the heels of Hamilton’s most successful admissions year in more than two decades. With a record applicant pool and a selectivity rate of 35%, Hamilton faculty and the Board of Trustees voted to go “SAT optional” at a time when the college is enjoying high levels of interest among prospective students.


Fuller voiced concern over the SAT: “We are aware of biases leveled against the SAT and other testing instruments and we will continue taking this criticism into account in our admission decisions.” Hamilton will join the ranks of very selective colleges such as Mount Holyoke, Muhlenberg, Bates, and Bowdoin, which have also moved away from test score requirements in an effort to bolster campus diversity and reduce applicants’ anxiety.


The new policy will go into effect for the coming year’s application cycle. Its effects on applications and enrollments will be studied for five years, at which time the Faculty Committee on Admission and Financial Aid will vote on a permanent policy.
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