5 Things to Know About Test-Optional Colleges



“As I’ve argued elsewhere, submitting SAT and ACT scores routinely increases students’ chances of being admitted to college, receiving more financial aid and placing out of remedial and introductory courses — even at test-optional universities. The use of the term “optional” is irresponsible because it obscures the very real benefits students can gain from preparing for the test and submitting their scores.”

~Yoon S. Choi, Inside Higher Education

The test-optional movement has gained momentum, as colleges try and adjust to the impact of COVID-19. The pandemic precluded the administration of the March 19th SAT in many locations and all SAT/ACT test dates in April and May were cancelled. The College Board eliminated the June test and the ACT set up alternative test dates for June and July. (And those are looking less viable as summer looms). While the ACT and the College Board adjusted, colleges took measures to try and alleviate stress for students and create options for applicants that might not have the opportunity to sit for the test. One of those steps was to become either test-optional or test-blind. Another was to eliminate the required or recommended SAT Subject Area Tests. Here are a few thoughts on this development:

  1. Test-Optional is not test-blind. Amidst all of these changes, it is important to note the difference between test-optional and test-blind. A school that announces that they are test blind, like Loyola New Orleans, is not going to include any standardized testing as part of the student’s file. Here is an excerpt from their admissions website:
    “Loyola has adopted a test blind admissions process. This means that we do not require a standardized test score for our admission application and we will not consider a test score, should a student choose to submit one. In test-blind admissions, the SAT or ACT score is not considered for admission or merit scholarship decisions. This will allow the admission process to be more focused on GPA, academic rigor, student involvement and the student’s personal statement. Read our test blind FAQs to learn more about our admissions process. “If you are applying to a school that is test-blind, students with test scores do not have any advantage. Standardized test are not part of the application at a test-blind school. This is an important distinction.

2. Test-optional does not mean that test scores do not matter. Test-optional schools will still look at students that have scores and if the results are good, those students might  have an edge. Cornell University has offered a test-optional plan for 2021 but on their website it says:

         “As appears to be true at test-optional colleges and universities, we anticipate that                     many students who will have had reasonable and uninterrupted opportunities to take the ACT and/or SAT during 2020 administrations will continue to submit results, and those results will continue to demonstrate preparation for college-level work.”

Students with good test scores will have an advantage at test-optional schools. This should not be a surprise. The colleges have made an effort to alleviate stress by offering a test-optional plan in these unprecedented times but the reality is that strong test scores will always be well-received.

3. Athletes might need scores at a test-optional school. Cornell explicitly states on their website that while they are offering a one year relief from requiring test scores, as a member of the Ivy League, athletes will still be obligated to submit test scores. If you are a recruited athlete, you need to communicate with your school to determine if standardized test scores are required.

4. Merit scholarships are often based on test scores. If you are applying to colleges and counting on being considered for merit scholarships, you will want to reach out to individual institutions to determine if standardized tests must be submitted to be awarded a scholarship or if they will evaluate your profile for an award without test scores.

5. The University of California system has been exploring the elimination of the ACT/SAT. If this happens we might see a turn of the tide where the standardized testing machine goes the way of the dinosaur. Lynn O’Shaughnessy writes about this here and you can also read about it here, in Inside Higher Education.

I applaud the colleges for turning on a dime and taking steps to allay stress for students. I will wrap this up with another quote from the article that I cited at the beginning of this post, from Yoon S. Choi’s piece in Inside Higher Education, “Words Matter“.

 “…we shouldn’t keep calling the test “optional” when we know a good score will increase students’ chances of getting into college, paying for college and graduating on time.

What is the takeaway here? We can only do as much as we can but I am advising my students to make every effort to sit for the SAT or the ACT in the fall and try to earn the best score that they can.


Why is May 1st Significant in College Admissions?


May 1st means several things to me and in the Stay-At-Home/Pandemic era, it just feels good to turn a page in the calendar. But, May 1st has traditionally been the National Decision Day for high school seniors to commit to the college that they will attend in the fall. This year many schools have extended the deposit date to accommodate the uncertain times, so if you know a senior, they might not have made a final decision because the schools that they are considering have moved the date to June 1st or beyond. And for me personally, it is the day that I opened my office last year. I took a sweet, compact room and tried to create a cozy, comfortable space to meet with students and help them on the road to college. (And yes, I can say I have a corner office!)


Above is where I started and below is where I finished.


Last May, I was inspired to take the month and offer free meetings in my new office. May is typically a quiet month in the consulting world; my seniors are settled and my juniors are gearing up to work on applications. Last year I wrote about this in a post called “Community”. These complimentary consultations were so well received that I decided to make this an August Consulting tradition, where anyone can schedule an hour to come in (or for now, schedule a call or a zoom meeting) during the month of May. The journey to college has always required families to engage in the process and now more than ever, the questions seem to multiply. So, ideally I would love to welcome you to my office, but for now, please reach out and schedule a time to speak or “meet” virtually. We are in challenging times and these meetings are a small thing that I can do to be of service.

If you have a senior that has made a decision, congratulations!

College Admission News, Part 3

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Here are a few more bits of information and thoughts on the effect of the pandemic in  college admissions:

COVID WRITING-The Common App is considering adding an optional section for applicants to write about how the quarantine effected their life. I think this would be a positive development that will allow students to share the impact but focus their core essay on something that reflects their experience and growth over a longer period of time, not just the past few months.

FALL OPENING-The million dollar question is will colleges and universities be able to welcome students back to their campuses at the end of the summer? So much could happen between now and August, one would need a crystal ball to determine the future. I heard a chief enrollment officer at a selective school share that in the middle of February, it occurred to them that they might need to reschedule their first Admitted Student event. This seemed like a horrible prospect and less than a month later, the entire campus was closed. At this point all schools are creating contingency options and I think that colleges and universities will start to announce their plans for the fall in the coming weeks.

IMPACT-I had a conversation with a student from the class of 2022 and they were lamenting that the class of 2021 was going to have so many choices of test-optional schools and they were sorry that they were not necessarily going to have the same choices the following year. I explained that actually, the class of 2021 might have an incredibly selective admissions cycle. If campuses are not able to offer classes in person this fall, I think there is going to be a significant slice of freshman that opt to defer and upper classmen that choose to take time off instead of completing another semester online. The same demographics that make the waitlist more favorable this year (which I wrote about here) could make seats in the fall of 2021 more scarce. One admission professional said that this could have a cascading effect for the next few years.

SILVER LININGS-Colleges have done an incredible job innovating on the fly. Since they have not been able to welcome prospective students to their physical campuses, they have turned on a dime and offered an amazing array of opportunities to engage with their campuses online. There are live presentations, YouTube channels, virtual tours and more. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that you can learn more than ever about a campus from the comfort of your own home. An admissions officer shared a story that they were speaking with a family that was choosing between two schools and they said that instead of spending a few hours on campus and going with their gut feeling, they were engaging on a much deeper level than if their student had simply attended an Accepted Student event. The websites are better than ever and schools are tracking demonstrated interest, so when you interact with them online, they have a record of your involvement.

That is all I have for now but I am sure I will be back with more information as events unfold. The other day I heard John Mayer say, “Yesterday was two weeks ago” and that pretty much sums it up. As more information is revealed, I will be sure to share. In the meantime, I hope you and your loved ones are all healthy and well.

College Admission News, Part 2

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Here is my next installment of developments in the college admission process in light of COVID 19. (And there will be a Part 3!)

SPRING 2020 GRADES-If you attend a school that has gone to a Pass/Fail grading system, you do not have to worry. I have listened to multiple admission officers say that they understand that distance learning in the pandemic will shift what transcripts look like. If your school continues to assign traditional grades and your academic performance drops due to the impact of the quarantine, there is a space in the Common App to explain that. And your School Counselor can discuss your circumstances in the recommendation that they write. You just need to ask them if they can include these details in their letter. This pandemic is happening on a global level and college admission representatives are well aware that this impacts their applicants.

WAITLISTS-When I have a senior that is offered a spot on the waitlist of a selective school, I congratulate them and tell them to accept the spot if they want to be considered for admission, should the school have room. But I also tell them that they need to move on from the college that waitlisted them and deposit at a school where they were admitted. And they need to be invested at this school because that is where they will likely go in August. But this year is different. Waitlists are already moving. (Normally they do not have any movement until after the May 1 deposit day). There are several factors behind this shift. International students that were admitted may not be able to travel or get the visas they need. Students that planned to attend a college far from home might reconsider and forego their acceptance at a school that requires air travel. And of course, families that have had economic upheaval might seek more affordable options for the fall. So if you are on a waitlist, fingers crossed that you get a spot!

SENIOR DEPOSITS-If you are a senior facing the May 1 deposit deadline, and you are struggling to make a decision due to any number of different factors in light of COVID 19, you can call the schools that you are considering and ask for an extension. If more time will help you gather the information you need, call the admission office and speak with them to see if they can extend the deposit deadline for you.

FINANCIAL AID-If a family has had a dramatic shift in their finances since they filled out the FAFSA and possibly the CSS/Profile, by all means, reach out to the school and have a conversation. Financial Aid offices are well aware of the toll that the pandemic has taken and they expect that families will be reaching out with special circumstances and seeking a professional judgement.

Stay tuned for Part 3 tomorrow!



College Admission News, Pt. 1

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Hello from quarantine in the Adirondacks! I have been carefully monitoring the impact of the global pandemic on college admissions and I have shared all my information to date on this post, College Admissions & COVID 19.  I have attended multiple online meetings to learn about shifts in testing, admission policies and everything in between. Things are in a fluid state and there will likely be more changes as the effects of Covid 19 continue to unfold. Here is a recap of the latest developments:

TESTING-The College Board cancelled the May and June SAT and plans to offer monthly testing, starting in August. They are also developing a plan for online testing at home in the fall, if they should need it. The College Board is giving registration priority to students that do not have scores or students that were registered for the June test. The ACT is moving forward with their June and July testing dates and have scheduled “rain dates” the week after each test. (I do not understand how one week will make a difference, but that is their plan). In the fall, they will offer an at-home online test and they will also offer the choice to retake a specific section online.

TEST OPTIONAL-Colleges across the nation are moving to a test-optional policy, some of them permanently, some temporarily, as I write this. So how should a 2021 applicant proceed? My instinct is that unless a college says they are test-blind, good standardized test scores are always going to help an application.

SAT SUBJECT TESTS-Several schools have dropped their requirements and I think that more will. If you are able to take them and your scores are good, unless a school says they are test-blind, the subject tests will enhance your profile.

APPLICATION TIMELINE-One question that I have heard more than once is if application deadlines for EA/ED/RD will change. I think it is too soon to tell. College admission offices have been adapting to constant change for the past months and I heard one Dean of Admissions say that they have not had a chance to consider whether these dates should change. So I would stay tuned to see if the timeline for applications shifts .

Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow!



It’s Ivy Admit Day!

We are coming down the homestretch of the 2020 admissions cycle. This evening the Ivy League schools will release their admission decisions. I thought it would be useful to post a quote that I saw from a lion in the school counseling world, to offer context and comfort in the event that you do not get the answer that you were hoping for. This school counselor said that an admissions representative from an Ivy League school gave a presentation to parents at his high school. This person told the parents, “The process is completely subjective and is designed to serve the colleges”. If you get the answer that you were hoping for this evening, congratulations! And if you did not, remember, the selection process is more about the school than the applicant. I hope you and your loved ones are healthy and finding ways to enjoy social isolation!

College Admissions & COVID-19

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Greetings from our new normal. I have been socially isolating and adjusting to online work as well as settling my family into a new routine that a week ago would have been unimaginable. As we address, the pandemic, I have no doubt that each of you is taking steps to keep your families safe and preparing for what may come.

There have been small bits of information trickling out of the college admissions world. I realize that this is probably not a high-priority item right now, but I wanted to find an efficient way to share this with people and I am going to keep a running feed on this post, with the latest news that I am hearing. When I feel that there are changes or decisions being made that are reasonably informed, I am going to post them here. Keep in mind, this is a dynamic situation. I am going to use my best judgement to share the most accurate information that I can at the time that I have it.

Lastly, if you, or anyone you know, have questions or concerns and would like to address a specific question, please, please, please share my email with them. I am happy to answer any and all questions, simply as a community service; there is no obligation to use me as a paid consultant. My email is louiselarsenconsulting@gmail.com.

3/22/20-The International Baccalaureate has canceled May exams due to the global pandemic. There is an article explaining this in detail here.

3/20/20, 1:50-The College Board has announced a plan for online AP testing this spring. The information is here.

3/20/20, 12:30-I thought it would be great to post a daily update but yesterday it felt a little inauthentic-there is no point in manufacturing news. So I am going to commit to only posting when I feel there is something meaningful to share. The latest news for today is two-fold. More schools than I can list are opting for test-optional applications in the next admissions cycle. To give you some examples, two colleges that have announced this are Case Western and Virginia Tech. The other news is that MIT has announced that they will not require SAT Subject Tests. The link to the announcement is here. I would imagine that in these unprecedented times, we will see more colleges follow suit.

3/18/20- Lewis & Clark College in Portland, OR, (full disclosure, I did my graduate work there) has contacted seniors to let them know that they reopened their Common App for any students that have decided that they wish to stay closer to home and would like to apply. If there is a school that is closer to home and you would like them to consider an application from you, even thought the deadline has passed, it does not hurt to ask. In this new normal, they might consider this option.

3/17/20-As if there was not enough stress in the world right now, if you are the parent of a senior, we are entering the final stretch of admissions decisions. If you have a senior, the final (and often most selective) colleges are releasing their decisions in the next two weeks. As you cope with your new normal, try and make some space to soothe or celebrate your senior as they receive answers amidst the stress of a global pandemic.

3/16/20, 4:40 pm- The College Board is finalizing plans to allow students to take AP exams at home in May. There is more information here.

3/16/30, 4 pm-The ACT has rescheduled the April 4th test date to June 13th. If you are registered for the April test, you will receive an email about this change. There is more information here.

3/16/20, 1 pm-The College Board has cancelled the May SAT. You can read about it here.

3/15/20-As far as future test dates, if you are comfortable gambling with a fee to take the SAT or the ACT this spring, I would register now. There was so much confusion yesterday and so many test sites were closed, that I bet there will be a glut of college applicants that will need to reschedule. This is a dynamic situation, so stay tuned.

3/14/20-If you were signed up to take the SAT today and your test center was open, consider yourself lucky. What I am hearing for the rest of the world was that chaos ensued.

3/13/20-Good news for seniors, Oregon State University has moved their deposit deadline from May 1st to June 1st. More colleges are following suit and I think that for the 2020 cycle, this might be a trend.


A Valentine For My Seniors!



I send this piece to my seniors every year. At this point, some know where they are going via Early Decision, some have heard back from all of their schools and are mulling over their choices and others are still waiting to hear from schools in the next few weeks. Wherever you are in the process, I hope this gives you peace!

“I came across a posting on the Grown and Flown Facebook page that caught my eye. A woman wrote about taking her daughter to visit her alma mater and running into a professor that she had studied with when she was an undergraduate. When he learned that her daughter was visiting the college as a prospective student, he gave some sage advice about deciding on a school. His words were so simple and comforting that I thought I would share them with you.

‘Almost any school will give you a good education if you work hard,” he went on. “It just doesn’t matter that much. Pick one because you like the size or the area, or because you can afford it. Then go enjoy it. Study hard and don’t party too much, make some lasting friendships. Just go, and be happy. It doesn’t matter where.’

You have all worked hard to compile a list with a range of schools that suit you for a variety of reasons. We have talked at length about loving your list. Your applications were submitted a long time ago. So as we come down the final stretch, take the words above to heart. And when all of the colleges have released their decisions, if you have a hard choice to make, read the paragraph above one more time. You are going to soar in college…you’ve got this! Happy Valentines Day.”

Another Blog Post for Sophomores!


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The recent post that I wrote, 3 Things a Sophomore Should be Doing for College Admissions, generated a lot of activity on my blog and several parents reached out with questions. As I was speaking with them, I remembered that I wrote another piece for sophomores that I thought would be useful to repost. Enjoy!


Parents often ask me when they should start visiting colleges with their children and my answer is as soon as you can. This is especially true if you are traveling in another part of the country and have some time to go explore a campus. A couple of years ago a client of mine was on vacation and weather rerouted them to Detroit for an extended layover. This savvy mom took her kids to see the University of Michigan and fast-forward 4 years, one of her kids is finishing her sophomore year in Ann Arbor! Here are my reasons for getting your sophomore on a college campus:

1. They Will Get Excited-When a high school student steps on a college campus, they get to peek over the horizon and see what is coming down the road. They will see the dining hall with all-you-can-eat ice cream, incredible gyms, the freedom to select courses that correspond with their interests and hopefully a sense of the freedom and fun that comes with college. They will also have a luxurious amount of time to think about colleges without having to make any decisions.

2. They Will Get Motivated-They say seeing is believing. School counselors, teachers and parents can talk until they are blue in the face about academic achievement but sometimes it sounds like the parents talking in the Peanuts movies. If your child steps foot on a campus that gets them a little bit excited (see #1) all of a sudden they have a tangible reason to focus on their academics. An excited student becomes a motivated student and they will understand why they need to work hard.

3. Athletics and Other Commitments-Obligations with athletics, clubs, youth groups, scouts, volunteer work, paid work, theater and music commitments is just a starting list of the many types of activities that the average college-bound kid has. When you look at the calendar and account for your child’s other commitments, you will see that trying to schedule a college visit can be complicated.

4. The List Needs to be Established Before Senior Year-When a kid starts high school, a parent might think they have four years to figure out the college question, but they really do not. If a student wants to return senior year with their applications complete, they must know where they are applying. In order to know where they want to apply, they need to have seen some campuses. Families can use senior year to continue to visit schools and many of my clients opt to add or delete schools from their list during senior year, but if you want a strong working list of schools, you ought to visit colleges well before 12th grade.

5. College Semesters Are Short-Once you have gone over your student’s schedule of obligations (see #3) and overlay your calendar on top of the college calendar, you might be in for a shock. Colleges tend to be in session from late August until early December and mid-January to early May. That is it. If you want your son or daughter to see a school when it is in session, you have a limited number of weeks. And to quote Gwyeth Smith, the school counselor profiled in Acceptance: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges-and Find Themselves, “seeing a college campus that is not in session is like trying to buy a house that you have driven by but not gone inside”.

I always tell my students that nothing is stressful when you have enough time. The stress starts to build when deadlines loom and time runs short. Carolyn Pippen was an admissions counselor at Vanderbilt. She wrote an excellent piece in 2014, “Lessons From a Departing Admissions Counselor“. The takeaway is this quote, “The calmest and most organized students fare the best in this process.” One way to stay calm and organized is to see some colleges in 10th grade!


3 Things a Sophomore Should be Doing for College Admissions


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I recently ran into a mother I know that is the parent of a sophomore. We were chatting about the college admissions process and it gave me inspiration for a blog post. Here are three things a sophomore should be doing to prepare for college admissions:

PSAT-I often sit down for initial visits with juniors and I ask them if they have PSAT scores from their sophomore year. This elicits a sly grin and they announce a set of test scores from their sophomore year that if it was their SAT from their senior year, I would suggest we start compiling a list of schools from the test-optional category. Then I ask them, “When you took the SAT, did you try to do your best?” And they look at me like I have two heads and say, “No, I did not take it seriously.” My suggestion for all sophomores is that they sit down and apply themselves when they take this test. Why? Because their scores will give us a general idea of where we stand as we start to look at schools. I am not suggesting that anyone do any prep or add an inkling of stress. Just sit down and give it your best effort. This score will provide an important gauge as we start to build a working list of schools.

ACADEMICS-Make sure that you are taking a level of rigor that stretches and challenges you and that you are doing your best academic work. The most important part of your application is your academic transcript, not only the grades you receive but the courses that you take will be evaluated. Keep this in mind as you choose courses for junior year. Ideally, you want to increase the level of rigor each year and improve your academic performance as well.

COLLEGE VISITS-Should a sophomore visit colleges? Absolutely! I am not suggesting that you go out of your way to do this. What I do tell families is that if you are taking a trip, and there is a school in the vicinity of your travels, you should try and make time to see it. You should also see colleges that are closer to home to compare and contrast a small school versus a large school, an urban campus versus a more rural one and private schools versus public options in your area. Ideally, a sophomore should have a sense of what they are looking for in terms of size, location and region/climate as they enter their junior year. I wrote more about this in another blog post titled “5 Reasons 10th Graders Should Visit Colleges“.

If you have a sophomore, I hope this helps you get started!