The SAT Optional Movement: Causes and Effects of No Longer Requiring the SAT

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During the 1950’s the use of the SAT grew rapidly in the country as means for colleges to compare students applying from different schools and by 1960 the use of the test had solidified itself across the country.  However in 1970, Bowdoin College made the decision to stop requiring applicants to submit their SAT scores in order to gain admission, deciding to instead judge students based on their academic performance, accomplishments within schools, and the qualities of their personality.  Bates College was the next selective school to follow and joined Bowdoin’s movement in 1984.  Since then, over seven hundred and fifty colleges and universities no longer require students to submit SAT or ACT when applying to college, and many of those do not require and kind of standardized testing to be submitted[1].  The growing movement demonstrates that colleges no longer look at standardized testing with the same weight as they did before 1984 and instead focus on high school achievements and personality as bigger factors.  This is a result of some schools losing faith in the SAT as an effective measure when comparing schools and no longer wanting standardized test scores to hold back qualified students whose standardized test scores are the only part of their applicants that are holding them back, as well as a desire to ensure a growing diversity within the school.  Some administrators believe that the SAT optional approach would be placing more of an emphasis on four years of achievement rather than an afternoon spent in a gymnasium.  Some school administrators now believe that the SAT or other standardized tests made for college entrance inhibit access to higher education rather than open doors for those students.  While the list of SAT optional schools mainly comprises of smaller liberal arts colleges who receive fewer applicants, some larger state schools have joined in this recent trend of making what used to be a major component of the application process into an optional part where students who feel that their standardized test scores could hurt their college matriculation no longer have to send their scores or take any standardized test including the SAT, ACT, and SAT subject tests.  However, some schools still ask that students to submit SAT subject tests and AP exam scores, but this still leaves students with the option of submitting scores in subjects where they feel they can perform strongest.  This list includes a number of schools ranked within the top 100 colleges and universities nationally and includes small liberal arts schools and larger state universities alike.[2] Some of these colleges and universities will only consider standardized testing scores into their decisions when the GPA requirements are not met, or will only use those scores to determine placement and academic advising when a student has gained admittance.  The purpose of the SAT and standardized testing is shifting to give students the largest possible advantage when applying to schools.

Bates decided to implement their policy in 1984 when they felt that students kept telling them that they were more intelligent than their standardized test scores would suggest, and it was their scores alone that were stopping them from going to a school that fit their academic potential.  After the policy was implemented, one of the first students to benefit was a girl who had graduated as valedictorian from her high school and is now at Dartmouth Medical School.  However, when she applied to Bates her combined SAT score was less than 1000.  Since Bates never looked at these scores, she was admitted, and went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa.  The college has found that since their policy was implemented those who did not submit SAT scores during the admissions process have had nearly identical GPA’s and graduation results to those students who did submit their SAT scores. Other schools have substituted the SAT with the optional supplements that help highlight a student’s personality and passions.  For example, Worcester Polytechnic Institute allows students to submit inventions, Eagle Scout Projects, and graded papers instead of taking the SAT, and Tufts University allows students to submit a one-minute YouTube video about themselves as part of their applications.  The purpose of the standardized testing alternatives is to allow students to replace their weakest part of the application with something that they feel makes them a more attractive applicant during the admissions process, and students who still feel that they want their scores as part of their applications are still allowed to use the alternatives in addition to their standardized testing scores.

The factors leading to the “anti-SAT movement” come from a desire to schools to help students who claim that their standardized testing scores do not live up to their actual intelligence and academic achievement.   SAT optional schools do so with the intent to make a student body more diverse in a variety of ways and to give each student more attention when observing their applications.  The movement made the most headway when in 2001 when the president of the University of California, the world’s largest and most influential SAT client, announced that his schools would no longer require students to submit the SAT I or the ACT as part of their application, claiming that he wanted to judge applicants on their achievement and not their aptitude, and accused the SAT of distorting academic priorities.[3] At the time this was the most significant anti-SAT movement in the history of the test.  Wanting to keep one of their biggest clients, the SAT redesigned their test so that it could test achievement instead of just aptitude.  The redesign was announced in 2002 and occurred once in 2003 and again in 2005, these changes included a critical reading section within the verbal section, and a new writing section of the test.  However, the reading design was not completely effective in stopping the anti-SAT movement.  While maintaining the University of California as a client, schools continued to stop requiring students to submit their scores, telling them that they should submit them only if their score was high enough to give them a greater chance of admission.  Each school that joined the movement was given a large amount of media attention, and after the most recent test went into use it was decided that all scholarships based solely on SAT scores would be banned.

Some defenders of the SAT suggest that schools will see a drop in academic quality if they continue to make the SAT an optional part of the admissions process and the College Board suggests that the movement should only pertain to vocational schools or schools that accept all of their applicants.  Claiming that this movement would only be possible in liberal arts schools and that the test and other standardized admissions tests are still the most effective and efficient way for schools to determine which students are worthy of gaining admission to the country’s most prestigious schools, when the range of strength of high schools is so diverse.  However, their adjustments to the test in 2003 and 2005 show that they had a legitimate fear when a large, prestigious family of universities claimed that they would no longer the test.  The fear was that if more schools followed the University of California’s lead, then high school students would begin to realize that the test mattered less, and more would make the decision to not even take the test during their high school years if the anti-SAT movement gained too much momentum.  One critique of the SAT optional policy actually accuses these schools not of trying to help students who were being held back by standardized testing, but by artificially increasing the number of incoming applications and being able to display a higher average SAT score, thus making the school seem more selective.[4] They also argue that the idea of removing one part of application process seems inconsistent and unfair to those applicants who may test higher than their GPA would suggest.  Those students may prefer to withhold their grades from the selection process and just submit their test scores and their high school achievements from outside of the classroom, but no school has even contemplated using this approach.

Despite alterations to the test, the anti-SAT movement continued to grow, and the addition of Wake Forest University in 2008 is one of the most significant allies to the movement within the last five years.  Wake Forest did not only add another large university to the list of college that no longer required the SAT, but placed at least one SAT-optional school within every major region of the country[5].  Wake Forest’s decision to become SAT optional is back by the opinion that the SAT is not a reliable predictor of college success or measure of academic achievement prior to college.  Wake Forest will face a challenge when making this change due to the large amount of applicants they receive each year and without the SAT to more easily separate these students, they will have to, as they have promised, give more individual attention to each applicant.  However, even with the extra work that will be added to the admissions process, Wake Forest wanted to make sure that SAT scores would not prevent the school from becoming more diverse.

The fear that there is potential for a college admissions process without an SAT seems to be the only potential repercussion of a more colleges and universities becoming SAT optional.  It now seems more possible that more selective and larger universities will become SAT optional.  However, schools have found that for the most part students who choose not to submit their SAT scores have similar GPA’s in high school and college as their counterparts who chose to submit standardized test scores[6].  There has also been no date suggesting that the quality of any school has suffered as a result of the anti-SAT movement.  For those schools that have chosen to make the SAT and standardized testing optional, they have found that the schools and students entering benefit from this movement and the only people that suffer as a result of going optional are the College Board from losing clients, and students who have lower GPA’s and higher standardized testing scores, even though those students still have the right to submit their scores if they feel that it will benefit their chances of admittance.  The colleges become more selective by attracting a larger, more diverse pool of applicants and attract more qualified applicants by being allowed to artificially post a higher average SAT score in their admissions statistics.  In fact, colleges claim that their applicant pool increases by as much as thirty percent in the years following the decision to go SAT optional[7].  The College Board will continue to advocate their test to maintain their large client base, and have shown that they will make whatever adjustments necessary to do so while still keeping the main purpose of the test intact.

The anti-SAT movement is not inevitable for the future of college admissions, as there are still many more schools that have not made the switch.  However, the growth in schools who have decided to join the anti-SAT movement, especially within the last ten years and since the SAT was restructured, show that this number could continue to increase and will continue to increase if the results from this action lead to more applicants, more qualified applicants, and a more diverse student body.  While the original intent of the movement was to open doors in the academic world that were being shut solely due to standardized test scores, administrators have begun to realize the advantages that going SAT optional will do to their universities.  When schools begin to see the administrative advantages of the anti-SAT movement , more could continue to follow in that path to the point where the SAT does not have enough clients to maintain itself.  This could lead to more changes in the test, but unless the SAT can continue to adjust there could be a point where colleges not longer consider the test an integral part of the admissions process.

[1] Epstein, Jonathan P. “Behand the SAT-Optional Movement.”Http:// Web. 3 May 2012.

[2] Fairtest. “SAT/ACT Optional 4-Year Universities.” The National Center for Fair & Open Testing. 2010. Web. 03 May 2012.

[3] Epstein, Jonathan P. “Behand the SAT-Optional Movement.”Http:// Web. 3 May 2012.

[4] Epstein, Jonathan P. “Behand the SAT-Optional Movement.”Http:// Web. 3 May 2012.

[5] Jaschik, Scott. “Another First for SAT-Optional Movement | Inside Higher Ed.” Inside Higher Ed. 27 May 2008. Web. 03 May 2012.

[6] Hess, William C. “Optional SAT’s at Bates: 17 Years and Not Counting.” The Chronicle Review. 26 Oct. 2001. Web. 03 May 2012. <>.

[7] Epstein, Jonathan P. “Behand the SAT-Optional Movement.”Http:// Web. 3 May 2012.


Epstein, Jonathan P. “Behand the SAT-Optional Movement.”Http:// Web. 3 May 2012.

Fairtest. “SAT/ACT Optional 4-Year Universities.” The National Center for Fair & Open Testing. 2010. Web. 03 May 2012.

Hess, William C. “Optional SAT’s at Bates: 17 Years and Not Counting.” The Chronicle Review. 26 Oct. 2001. Web. 03 May 2012. <>.

Jaschik, Scott. “Another First for SAT-Optional Movement | Inside Higher Ed.” Inside Higher Ed. 27 May 2008. Web. 03 May 2012.