When high school senior Annie* saw an email from the regional admissions counselor at her first-choice university in her inbox this November, her heart skipped a beat. But the email left Annie feeling confused. In a friendly tone, he asked if she would like to reconsider submitting her ACT score as part of her application to the university, noting that her score of 29 was slightly below their middle 50th percentile range for test scores.
The counselor explained he was trying to give Annie her best shot at admission and then gave her instructions on how to redact her scores from her application. “When I received that email, I was thankful admissions would reach out to me about my score,” Annie told Grown & Flown. “However, it made me concerned that they might not fully look into my application.”
A composite score of 29 on the ACT is comparable to a 1330-1350 on the SAT, according to ACT’s concordance table. In the 2020-21 reporting year, ACT calculated a 29 at the 90th percentile: only one out of every ten test-takers scores higher than a 29 on the exam. Annie felt the score reflected her abilities well, which was why she had decided to submit the score to colleges.
New test optional policies have raised many questions
However, after the email, Annie was concerned her 29 was not “good enough,” and by redacting it, the admissions committee might think her score was lower than it was. She began second-guessing the decision to send her score to other test-optional colleges.
Before COVID, there were already many test-optional colleges and universities in the U.S. When the pandemic made testing difficult or impossible for large numbers of students, the number of schools adopting at least temporary test-optional admissions policies rose dramatically. With that rise came questions and dilemmas about how to navigate this new, even murkier college admissions landscape.
The general wisdom from college counselors has been for students to submit scores to test-optional schools if they are, at minimum, in the middle 50th percentile range of scores for that college, but many students worry leaving scores off their applications will look “bad,” or admissions officers will make assumptions about them. Suggesting a student redact their scores is undeniably helpful and it gives students direct and transparent guidance, but it also leaves questions and worries for seniors who are already suffering from decision fatigue after years of a pandemic and remote learning.
Why would a college suggest a student redact scores from their application?
It’s hard to interpret the motives behind an email like the one Annie received without knowing the specific nuances and details of both the college and the student in question. One theory is that by encouraging students not to submit scores lower than their average test score, a college can maintain that average or even raise it, possibly making the school look more selective and elite in the eyes of potential applicants and their families.
But test prep expert Akil Bello, who also serves as Senior Director of Advocacy and Advancement at FairTest, said the answer might be more generous than strategic, and “attempts at ‘admissions game theory’ is a road to frustration and disappointment,” he notes.
“Could it benefit a college to remove lower scores? Sure. Does it benefit a college is a harder question,” he told Grown & Flown. “How many lower scores would have to be removed to increase the average test score an appreciable amount? To change public perception? To move one spot on the rankings? I bet the number of scores that would have to be dropped would have to be huge.”
When an example of Connecticut College urging a student to redact their scores was shared on Twitter, Connecticut College’s Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Andy Strickler, jumped in to explain their side of the story.
“As we read applications, our admission counselors will occasionally reach out to students who have applied and may benefit by changing their application to test-optional,” he tweeted in the replies.
“This is done to MAXIMIZE their chances of admission and scholarship and has nothing to do with U.S. News or other rankings. It’s simply to let the students know they may be in a better position for admission/scholarship if they waive their standardized test scores.”
Strickler pointed to a section of Connecticut College’s website in which the college elaborated on their test-optional admissions policy. He added that he was “90% sure we were working to potentially increase a merit scholarship offer…”
Bello said this kind of answer makes sense to him. “This seems like an inefficient way to try to increase scores,” he said. “Also, at institutions that admit 70% of their students with scores in the top 7% of scores nationally, what is the motivation to increase average scores?”
One might also ask how high much higher scores could possibly go. The University of Pennsylvania now reports a middle 50% ACT score range of 35-36…out of a perfect score of 36.
What does it really mean if a student receives an email encouraging them to redact their scores from their application?
When a college sends a personal email asking an individual student who has submitted scores that are at or below the midpoint for that school if they would like to proceed test optional, “the answer should be yes,” said Ginger Fay, a former college admissions professional and now a director at Applerouth Test Prep based in Atlanta, Georgia.
“The college is sending a clear signal that scores that are ‘off profile’ – admissions speak for below the middle 50% range of the previous year – will hold the student back [in admissions],” she explained.
If a student is encouraged to redact their scores from one college, should they redact their scores from all the colleges where they applied?
Not necessarily, said the experts.
“As with all things in the admissions process, the answer is, ‘It depends,’” said Fay. “I would not go so far as to proactively pull scores from all the colleges a student applied to simply because one school suggested it – what is right in one situation may not be in another.”
“Like dating, what works with one partner might not work with the other,” said Bello. “Treat each college as an individual and respond to the information that particular school gives you.”
How can you support a student deciding whether or not to submit a test score?
“One of the worst things we’ve done with test scores in this country is to equate them to things beyond performance on the test,” said Bello. “Testing is a marker of performance on a small set of academic material on a particular day. It’s not reflective of worth, intelligence, or potential.”
“I would encourage parents to remind their students the score is just one piece of the whole puzzle, and if a student’s score is not compelling at one of the schools on their list, I might point out that there are lots of colleges where those scores would be compelling,” said Fay.
On Twitter, Oregon State University VP of Enrollment Jon Boeckenstedt, condemned practices like that of test-optional universities reaching out to applicants about redacting their test scores after they had already applied.
“Because. It’s. The. Same. Student. With. Or. Without. The Scores,” he tweeted. “Don’t say it’s about giving students the opportunity, Because. It’s. The. Same. Student. With. Or. Without. The. Scores.”
*Not her real name.