Guide to US Applications • Undergraduate

Testing the Waters: Is Standardised Testing Making a Comeback Post-Pandemic

POSTED ON 03/14/2024 BY The Red Pen

happy-young-girl-latin-american-student-Received letter with notification successful exams

College admissions underwent a profound transformation in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. Standardised testing, once a cornerstone of the US admissions process, was relegated to the sidelines. The number of test-optional colleges in the US dramatically increased from 1,075 in March 2020 to 1,700 by the fall of the same year.

However, a significant shift is underway as the dust settles and a semblance of normalcy returns. Several prestigious institutions, including Dartmouth College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and Georgetown, have reinstated standardised testing requirements for admissions. The University of Texas, Austin, has recently joined Yale and Brown University in reinstating testing requirements. More universities are expected to declare their decisions regarding testing policies this spring.

What prompted this sudden about-face, and what implications does it have for the future of college admissions? Let’s delve into the details.

Why some elite schools are changing their minds

Amidst the ongoing debate surrounding standardised testing in college admissions, institutions continue to weigh different factors in shaping their policies. While the pre-pandemic research asserted that high school GPAs were a more accurate predictor of college success than SAT/ACT scores, post-pandemic research presents a different perspective. 

Recent research suggests that reintroducing standardised tests can help marginalised students access higher education opportunities. For example, 2024 research by Opportunity Insights suggests that standardised test scores carry more weight in predicting the outcomes of students in highly selective colleges, regardless of their background. In a PEW survey, 85 percent of Americans indicated that standardised tests should be a factor in college admissions. 

Jeremiah Quinlan,  Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, acknowledged, “Simply put, students with higher scores have been more likely to have higher Yale GPAs, and test scores are the single greatest predictor of a student’s performance in Yale courses in every model we have constructed.” 

According to Dartmouth President Sian Leah Beilock, SAT and ACT scores are more reliable indicators of college performance than GPA and recommendation letters. Test-optional policies hinder identifying less-advantaged students, including international students, due to reliance on biased factors, lack of transcript clarity, and student reluctance to submit scores.

Brown University President Christina Paxson has highlighted concerns regarding “unintended adverse outcomes” of test-optional policies in the admissions process, which could potentially undermine the goal of increasing access. She acknowledged that students from well-resourced backgrounds perform better on standardised exams due to additional tutoring or other advantages. In response to these challenges, Brown University has adopted a “testing in context” campaign, promoting a holistic review process that considers standardised test scores as one of the many factors. This approach aims to assess each applicant’s academic potential fairly while considering their background and circumstances. Paxson emphasised that interpreting test scores in the context of an applicant’s background may benefit underrepresented students. 

Jay Hartzell, President of the University of Texas, emphasised the importance of standardised testing in the admissions process, citing its role in identifying students who best fit the university and its programmes. Hartzell noted that during the test-optional period, the university found standardised testing to be a valuable tool for admissions decisions, particularly in differentiating among applicants with high GPAs. 

The Common App data highlights a substantial rise in first-year applicants, driven by a 10 percent uptick in underrepresented minority applicants and a 14 percent surge in international applicants in 2023-24 compared to 2022-23. Yale University’s admissions data following the implementation of a test-optional policy in 2020 reveals a remarkable 66 percent surge in its applicant pool. However, this surge hasn’t translated into a proportional increase in academically prepared applicants, signalling a potential disparity between quantity and quality in the applicant pool after the implementation of test-optional admissions.

Implications of standardised testing policies on the future of college admissions

Colleges across the US are adopting diverse approaches to standardised tests. While some are reintroducing standardised testing requirements, others are maintaining test-optional policies. The University of Michigan, for instance, has transitioned from being test-flexible to test-optional. The previous policy permitted applicants to submit a range of test scores, including SAT or ACT, as well as PSAT, IB, or AP. However, the updated policy specifies that UMich will accept only ACT and SAT scores. Meanwhile, Princeton University has opted to continue its test-optional policy across the 2023, 2024, and 2025 admission cycles while reassessing the role of standardised testing.

In contrast, certain institutions prioritise comprehensive admissions review processes beyond test scores. For example, Columbia University has decided to remain permanently test-optional, emphasising a holistic and contextual approach to admissions. 

FairTest Executive Director Harry Feder stated that ACT/SAT-optional and test-blind/score-free policies persist as the “new normal” in undergraduate admissions. He explained that test-optional policies are prevalent at national universities, state flagships, and selective liberal arts colleges because they often lead to increased applicant numbers, stronger academic profiles among applicants, and greater diversity. The data from FairTest indicates that over 80 percent of US four-year colleges and universities will not mandate ACT/SAT scores for fall 2025 admissions.

Test-optional Policy ExtendersTest-optional Policy Enders
Harvard UniversityDartmouth
California Institute of Technology (Caltech)Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
The City University of New York (CUNY)Yale University
University of Missouri Brown University
University of UtahUniversity of Texas* (applies to 25% of applicants)
Vanderbilt UniversityGeorgetown University
Boston University 
Columbia University
William & Mary
Cornell University
Villanova University
University of Michigan
Duke University
Source– University Websites. Disclaimer: Please note that schools reserve the right to review and modify their standardised testing policies at any time without prior notice. Please check the official websites or contact the admissions offices for the most up-to-date information.

* The standardised testing policy applies to 25 percent of applicants not covered by automatic admission. As per a 2009 law modification, The University of Texas at Austin must automatically admit enough Texas residents to fill 75 percent of available spots.

As the post-pandemic era unfolds, colleges and universities face the challenge of balancing academic standards with accessibility and equity in admissions. The resurgence of standardised testing prompts reflection on the evolving nature of higher education admissions and the ongoing quest to identify and support promising students from diverse backgrounds.

At The Red Pen, we provide comprehensive support to applicants at every stage of the application process. Please contact us if you need assistance with your application; our admissions specialists look forward to helping you. In the meantime, you can read our blog on US Undergraduate Standardised Testing: All You Need to Know