Some thoughts on the University of California’s Test Optional Policies

You may have heard that the University of California (UC) system has officially made SAT/ACT testing optional in their admissions process. The system’s stated goal with this new policy is to eliminate the need for these tests altogether within the next five years.

By the accounts we have read, the UC system hopes to increase socioeconomic diversity on its campuses through this new measure.

Here, we will address eight questions we have received from families of rising high school juniors and seniors regarding the UCs’ new policies.

*Please note: these are unprecedented times in the college admissions process, and information can change daily. If we miss anything in our responses below, please do not hesitate to reach out and we will release a correction.*

1). What does “test optional” actually mean?

“Test optional” means that students can submit exam scores to a test-optional college if they would like to, but don’t have to in order to be considered for admissions.

2). Does this mean the UCs are no longer counting the ACT/SAT in admissions?

Unfortunately, “test optional” does not mean the UCs are “not counting” the ACT or SAT — at least not yet. It’s also too soon to tell how this policy will actually play out in practice over the next few admissions seasons. Logistics will have to be discussed and implemented before the UCs can fully free themselves from the ACT and SAT. Since it’s too soon to tell how this will play out, it is likely in most students’ best interest to continue as planned with taking either the ACT or SAT.

3). Does test optional mean the UCs will be easier to get into?

No, the UCs will not be easier to get into with test optional policies. However, the UCs will not necessarily be more difficult to get into, either.

4). What will happen to admissions at the UCs?

Based upon historical trends from the liberal arts colleges that implemented test-optional policies, the new UC policy will likely increase the number of applications and lower the UC’s overall acceptance rate in the immediate future. Although applications may increase, the UCs won’t necessarily be more difficult to get into. More applications may come from students who are applying on a whim since the SAT/ACT policy has become relaxed. Many of these students may not fit the academic profile of competitive UC applicants. Therefore, these policies will likely not significantly increase the competition amongst competitive UC students.

5). Should my student even bother taking the ACT/SAT and submitting scores?

If your student has the physical and financial means to take the SAT or ACT and a nice, quiet place to take the exams in case they’re administered online during the quarantine, then your student should still take either the ACT or the SAT. If the score falls within the historical range of your student’s choice UC campus, then your student should still submit that score. Given that college admissions requirements are more varied than ever, if your student wants to go to a school outside the UC system than taking either the SAT or ACT is still in his or her best interest. As we see some further data on admissions on UC campuses and campuses across the country in coming years, this recommendation may change.

6). Do test optional policies actually help at-risk students gain admissions to colleges?

The policy itself neither helps nor hurts at-risk students. However, the execution of this policy will determine whether the UCs reach their goal.

While the ACT and SAT may have significant flaws in their distribution and content, it is unclear whether standardized testing serves as a detriment to at-risk student populations in every circumstance. In spite of their public declaration against the ACT and SAT, the UCs’ own research has shown that both tests are beneficial for contextualizing a student’s overall high school experience for admissions. UC Merced in particular has found success with using the tests to establish a socioeconomically diverse student body, and does not approve of this new policy change.

7). What is the UC’s long-term plan with this test-optional policy?

In five years, the UCs plan to release their own, proprietary standardized test and completely eliminate the ACT/SAT from their admissions process. Even if they eliminate their dependence on the SAT and ACT, it seems they do not intend to limit their dependence on standardized testing. In one unfortunate scenario, students in five years who apply to UC campuses and other non-UC schools may have to take both the UC proprietary test and the SAT or ACT. This would be difficult for all students regardless of their background.

Given the money and resources it takes to develop high-quality standardized tests, we anticipate the UC system will not be able to successfully implement a new standardized test in five years. In the past, the UCs have been careful about implementing changes in their admissions policies to protect students. This five-year plan seems more aggressive than plans they have instituted in the past.

8). How do I know what’s best for my student?

We recommend speaking to your college or guidance counselor to discuss testing options that fit your student’s needs in context of grades and extracurriculars. The SAT and ACT have historically provided contextual evidence of a student’s academic merits for a particular school. Test scores have also been one of only a few numerical data points for admissions offices to reference. A counselor will help you determine whether submitting an application without these test scores is in the best interest of your student. As mentioned, we anticipate that taking and submitting ACT/SAT scores will still be the best idea in the immediate future for most students.