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Episode four | Students’ views and the news

Test-optional or test-required college admissions?
Episode four | Students views and the news

Podcast host Ben Bradfield interviews seniors Brendan Talbot and Christina Nies, as well as college and career specialist Mr. Toomer to determine student and staff perspectives on test scores’ importance in the college admissions process.


Ben Bradfield: Hello, welcome back to Students’ Views and the News, a podcast from The Oracle that covers everything new to WS. I’m Ben Bradfield. Today is Thursday, February 29th, 2024.

(“Students’ views and the news” main theme plays.)

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Ben Bradfield: As the COVID-19 pandemic initially spread and students put down their notebooks and opened their laptops during an era of virtual learning and lockdowns, a vast multitude of colleges and universities allotted for test-optional undergraduate applications. These test-optional applications permitted students to apply to higher education institutions without submitting SAT or ACT scores. Last week, Yale University announced that they would be reversing their test-optional admissions policy, joining both Dartmouth College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Students are now left exploring the decision of whether or not to submit test scores. Today we are joined by senior Brendan Talbot, who applied to colleges this year with submitting a test score and has formulated a perspective on this topic.

Brendan Talbot: I’m Brendan Talbot, and I’ll be pro-submitting test scores and pro-colleges requiring test scores.

Ben Bradfield: We are also joined by senior Christina Nies, who applied to colleges test-optional and has opinions on this subject.

Christina Nies: Hello.

Ben Bradfield: And college and career specialist Mr. Toomer.

Mr. Toomer: Hello everyone, glad to be here. Thank you for the invitation, Ben.

Ben Bradfield: Of course. Brendan, how has your experience been applying to colleges with submitting test scores? How important do you consider test scores in the college admissions process?

Brendan Talbot: Well, quite frankly, as a college admissions officer – or not as a college admissions officer, I don’t know exactly how much they value test scores, but honestly, I think from what I’ve read and what I’ve gathered, this is one of the least important years for test scores ever. Because so many colleges are test-optional and especially around here, when students have so many opportunities for extracurriculars and Advanced Placement (AP) classes, test scores just aren’t looked at as much. This is especially true, I believe, for more liberal arts schools, for example, if you apply to a technology school. I still believe they’re more important. However, I think at liberal arts schools, such as a school in Virginia, William & Mary, I believe it’s less important – they barely look at test scores. So, I think it’s definitely interesting. And in my college process, I definitely submitted my test scores to all my colleges, I’ve been quite happy with my test scores. However, my college admissions process, quite frankly, has not gone the way I expected it to. So, I don’t know whether that’s because of my test scores, essays or GPA. And obviously, you know, I’d have to be a college admissions officer to know that.

Ben Bradfield: Thank you. Christina, please define your perspective on remaining a test-optional applicant and your experience with this year’s college application process. How do you render test scores’ importance in college admissions?

Christina Nies: So, I kind of have a similar opinion to Brendan. I didn’t submit my scores because I felt like, I liked my scores, but my scores weren’t quite high enough to the point where they fit within the range of the colleges I applied to, but I also only applied to liberal arts schools, so I knew that I didn’t need this super high Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) score. Because for me, math has always been more difficult. So I had a very good reading score, but my math score is kind of what brought my score down. So, yeah, I didn’t submit because I didn’t feel like it would help me, and I knew that the schools I was applying to wouldn’t consider it as heavily as some of the other schools I could have applied to.

Ben Bradfield: Mr. Toomer, what were your initial thoughts when colleges began permitting test-optional applications after the pandemic? Were you surprised by this change at all?

Mr. Toomer: I think I was a little surprised, but I think we have to roll this conversation back several years. I graduated from high school 40 years ago from this May. So, this topic of the benefit, the efficacy of the SAT or the ACT has always been in the media. Is it a test that truly shows, that truly gives an opportunity for assessment of how students will do when they approach the college campus? And the debate is going to continue. So, we are rehashing a discussion that has been out there for a while.

Ben Bradfield: Mr. Toomer, when advising students in their college application journey, what advice do you give to students on whether or not to submit their SAT or ACT scores?

Gone are the days when colleges are looking for a student that makes good grades and tests well.

— Jeff Toomer, college and career specialist

Mr. Toomer: So I have a lot of the college admissions officers that come to WS to talk to students, like the ones in this room on this podcast here, and asking that sam question to them, the answer is usually an encouragement for students who take the SAT or ACT. So, firstly, take the SAT or ACT, and then, depending on what school you’re going to apply to or that you want to go to, you can decide based upon their policy whether you want to submit your test scores. College admissions officers consistently say if your test scores are at the median or above what they report on their website for the incoming freshman class, then you should submit your test scores. Why? Because it produces, it’s another data point on you as a student. Gone are the days when colleges are looking for a student that makes good grades and tests well. There are schools like that, there are elite schools that those statistics are important. But most colleges and universities in America are looking for a holistic student: a student that not only makes good grades, that tests well, but has other things about them that would make their college campus more diverse in terms of their interests and those things that the student brings that will be of benefit to the school. The other half of that is if your test scores are slightly below the median, still take them. Obviously the recommendation is take the SAT, the ACT, but then you have the option if that school is test optional whether you submit your scores or not. Test-optional means that the school is not going to penalize you as a student if you submit your scores or if you withhold them.

Ben Bradfield: How do each of you see test scores’ relevance in the college admissions process in the future? Will more colleges follow the trend of reversing their test-optional policy? Brendan, we can start with you.

Brendan Talbot: Actually, a test taken on any given day with a myriad of resources available for free online in today’s day and age. For example, I studied entirely on Khan Academy, an entirely free website, I didn’t have any private tutors, I didn’t pay anything for my studying. The money I paid was to take the test, and I know there are waivers available for low income. And I was happy with my scores on the SAT, you know, I think I did pretty well. And I think things like extracurricular opportunities, internships and having a high GPA – those are actually things that are more representative of one’s economic status rather than the SAT. For example, a student who has to support their family, who’s in lower income, may be able to find the time to study for the SAT by themselves. They might not be able to do those unpaid internships or spend all that time on volunteer hours that a rich person may be able to. So, those things like GPA and extracurriculars, those are directly tied to economic status. The second thing is while test scores are not the “end-all, be-all” because of testing anxiety or ADHD, I think there’s still an important skill in the real world. I mean, working under pressure, answering questions under pressure, even in a time-crunch, that’s a very real-world skill. I think that just because someone is not necessarily as good as someone else on it, doesn’t mean that that thing should be entirely excused. That’s something you need to work on, something you need to improve. And, like I said, tests shouldn’t be the “end-all, be-all” because there’s so many important aspects, but acting like tests aren’t one of the important aspects, in my opinion, would be the wrong way the judge college admissions.

Ben Bradfield: Thank you, Brendan. Christina, would you like to respond?

Christina Nies: Well, I think that, sort of going back to your original question about the role of the SAT in the future, I think that the SAT, colleges are really going to start considering that more, especially considering Yale, MIT, as you know, they’ve brought that back, they’ve reversed test-optional. I think that’s going to be a trend at these more exclusive, small acceptance rate type colleges because the SAT, like Brendan said, I agree that is a relevant factor in your candidacy for admission – gaining admission to a school. And so, I think that more schools will have SAT not be test-optional, but I think that schools that are accepting a wider range of students and aren’t as exclusive, they’re going to keep the test-optional policy because I think that fits their admissions and how many students they want to accept.

Ben Bradfield: And, Mr. Toomer, would you want to respond to the previous question and also the perspectives that students have offered.

Mr. Toomer: Yeah, I think that the debate will continue and the wonderful thing about our country is that we have a lot of colleges and universities that all want a version of student on their campus, and the other good thing is that these schools are not homogenous. They have very similar ideals for the students that they want on campus, but they come about it in different ways, and that benefits the student. There’s a school out there for every student, whether you are a good test-taker and submit those scores or whether you don’t. So, I both agree and disagree with Brendan and Christina. I agree in that there’s valid research that says the SAT and the ACT are valid assessments of a student’s potential performance in college. You can’t deny research. As someone who’s not a good test-taker, I’ll tell you I went to an elite school making subpar scores on the SAT, which says there is a way for schools to assess students and their capacity to perform academically on a college campus using other parameters other than just the SAT or ACT. To that end, I think we have to give some credit and some freedom to colleges to decide whether a school will require a test or not require a test. I would also say there really is relation between test scores and affluence. Brendan, that’s a real thing. When you as a student are applying to a school, regardless of what that school is, the misnomer is that you’re being compared to mostly all the other schools and the students around the country that are applying to the same school. Sort of, but not really though. You are compared to the school that you go to and the rigor of our curriculum here: that’s the biggest comparison. It would be unfair to compare a student that goes to WS and the affluence of northern Virginia, and the rigor – we’re a really good school, we’re listed every year in the U.S. News and World Report as a top 300 school in the country, top 10-15 in Virginia – it’s unfair to compare our curriculum with the curriculum of a school that’s in a rural area in Virginia or some other area. So, what schools are then doing is taking test scores, and they’re measuring how resilient was this student in a noncompetitive school – I went to a noncompetitive high school and didn’t score well on the SAT, and I still got into the United States Military Academy at West Point because West Point looked at other things in my file that proved that I could have and had the capacity to do well. So, I would hope that schools will continue to both look at test scores and not look at test scores and use a holistic approach to asses whether students have the capacity to perform well on their campuses.

Ben Bradfield: Thank you, Mr. Toomer. Lastly, what do you want students to take away from your ideas?

Mr. Toomer: I would encourage students to prepare for and take the SAT and the ACT and choose whether you’re going to submit it or not. Why would I do that? Because it’s a data point. We are trying to provide a picture of who you are as a person and as a student.

Ben Bradfield: Thank you. Please tune in next time on Students’ Views and the News. I’ve been your host, Ben Bradfield. Stay tuned for more updates on the Oracle Online and the Oracle Instagram. 

This story was originally published on The Oracle on February 29, 2024.