Rhodes College, in Memphis, Tennessee, is a liberal arts and sciences college with around 2,000 undergraduate students.

The bottom lines: 

1. Be careful about the conclusions you draw from numbers showing that a greater percentage of admitted students submitted test scores. Test scores often correlate to achievement in the classroom, so those with high scores most often have high GPAs in rigorous classes.

2. Test scores don’t drive admissions decisions. 

3. Private schools have more latitude in making decisions about test-optional policies. Public universities are generally governed by a board that rules on the admissions policies of all the schools in a state university system.

Counselor Candice Mackey led a discussion of test-optional policies among Jared Rosenberg (UNC Chapel Hill), Mark Butt (Emory), and Lauren Sefton (Rhodes College) on Nov. 22. The panel brought together three very different but selective schools. North Carolina at Chapel Hill is a large public university with over 18,000 undergraduate students and an average acceptance rate of 22 percent. UNC must take 82 percent of each freshman class from in-state applicants. Emory is a medium-sized private research university in Atlanta, accepting about 15 percent to join its undergraduate school of around 7,000. Rhodes College, accepting about 44 percent, is a small liberal arts and sciences school in Memphis, Tennessee, with about 2,000 undergraduates. Though both Emory and Rhodes have Protestant religious affiliations, neither one is academically impacted by that relationship.

Emory, UNC, and Rhodes were test-optional last year and through the fall of 2022. Unlike Emory and Rhodes, UNC is governed by a state university system that decides whether or not the state schools will use standardized testing as an admissions factor. Emory chose to go to test-optional admissions based on their monitoring of the pandemic and associated mental health challenges, as well as the reduced accessibility to SAT and ACT testing. Mark Butt said that they were pleased with last year’s pool and process and they will remain test-optional through next year. UNC Chapel Hill’s Jared Rosenberg said that they will stay test-optional through the fall of 2022, but 2023 remains up in the air.

Public universities are governed by state boards, which determine whether or not testing will be required. Florida’s State University System, governing all 12 Florida publics, have required testing throughout the pandemic (the only state not making test scores optional). California state schools, however, eliminated testing completely from all their institutions. Private schools have more autonomy in determining how, if at all, to use test scores for admissions.

Rhodes is in the second year of a three-year pilot; after next year the faculty will decide whether or not to continue being test-optional. Rhodes had a benchmark of 1300 SAT or 28 ACT. If you met the benchmark, it didn’t matter by how much. The first readers, who read in pairs, would not know the test score, only that the student met the benchmark, so they read the application without knowing if the applicant had a 1300 or 1600. Today, the first paired readers are still “blind” to the scores, and if scores are submitted, the second-round reader knows only whether or not the benchmark had been met.

What are you looking for in students?

Emory: Emory wants to enroll students who will persist and “find success year after year.” They want global minds and global lenses to solve global problems. “During holistic review, we’re looking at the student in context of their school. What are they doing with their time? We also consider our institutional goals. . . . Sometimes we see fantastic students but they may not be aligned with what we’re trying to do.”

Rhodes: Rhodes is looking for rigor in the transcript, for the GPA over time to have a positive trend, for evidence of leadership, and for essays that show real care in writing.

UNC Chapel Hill: Reading applications goes back to the holistic, individual, comprehensive review of essays, involvement, and transcript. They focus on the courses selected and grades received rather than on GPA or rank, and they consider the scales and criteria of your school in context. 

Do admissions readers think your score is low if not submitted?

UNC Chapel Hill: When there’s no score, the readers don’t know whether the student took a test or not, and they are trained to not make assumptions about testing.

Rhodes: By removing the score completely from the first read, no judgment is made if there’s no score submitted. The first people to read your application will be two people who are trained to read as partners. If you do submit test scores to Rhodes, the second-round reader will only know if the “benchmark” of 1300 SAT or 28 ACT had been reached. The actual score is never revealed.

What are your admission data and trends for 2020-21?

UNC Chapel Hill: Although the admit rate for those who submitted tests was higher than those who did not submit tests (23% vs. 13%), Rosenberg cautioned that the numbers do not mean it’s better to submit. Test scores often correlate with rigor and GPA. With tests being optional, the average scores went up because people with higher scores were more likely to submit them than those whose scores were lower. 

Rhodes: About half applied without submitting tests; 37 percent were admitted without test scores. Sefton echoed Rosenberg’s warning that you cannot look at these numbers and conclude that you have a better chance of admissions if you submit testing.

Emory: Butt gave an analogy that made the other panelists nod their heads in agreement: The transcript is the motorcycle and testing is a sidecar–they move together but the transcript does the driving. 

Students should keep the motorcycle and sidecar image in mind and focus on their classes, not on testing.

Test-Optional at Emory, Rhodes, and UNC