In the summer of 2020, a number of schools made the move to strike their SAT or ACT requirement for the incoming class of 2025. And today, Harvard joined Cornell, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania as the fourth Ivy League school to waive testing requirements for the Class of 2026. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw hundreds of schools go “test-optional” in a bid to lighten the load on prospective college students as they grappled with the new challenges of virtual learning, including the closing of schools and growing infeasibility of test-taking in a group format due to health concerns. It was a necessary gesture of understanding and leniency during unforeseen and incredibly challenging circumstances.
The trend towards eliminating barriers to accessibility by loosening standardized testing requirements, while exacerbated by the challenges of the pandemic, has been gaining traction for a significant amount of time. Recent years have seen a slow movement away from colleges and universities issuing testing requirements, with 1,070 colleges already possessing a “test-optional” status before the pandemic even hit. While most colleges are hailing this trend as a long-awaited shift towards diversifying and equalizing the admissions process, in some ways, this growing trend may serve to exacerbate already-soaring levels of exclusivity among the United States’ most prestigious universities, including Princeton.
Relaxed standardized testing requirements have already begun to have an impact on admissions trends. Applications to some top schools, including those in the Ivy League, skyrocketed. Harvard received a staggering 57,000 applications — 17,000 more than for the Class of 2024. New York University saw its application numbers climb beyond 100,000 for the first time. At Princeton, University Media Relations Specialist Ayana Gibbs told the ‘Prince’ that the University received a record 37,000 applications this year — a 15 percent increase from last year.
A number of causes could be to blame. High school students spent more time online last year than ever before — a trend that allowed universities to take advantage of online marketing opportunities and reach a greater number of students through virtual events. The relaxation of testing requirements allowed students who had not previously considered universities such as those in the Ivy League to apply, believing top-tier schools to be their “moonshot” chance.
In eliminating the requirement of submitting a standardized testing score, universities were looking to construct a process that was more equal and inclusive. However, in some ways, gaining acceptance to top universities has never been more difficult. Despite the increase in application numbers, most universities’ capacity to accept students is lower than ever. The heightened number of students taking leaves of absences this year only means that capacity will be stretched for the next several years, leaving fewer spots available for prospective students.
Thus, higher application numbers inevitably mean that acceptance rates will plummet. Further, decisions made by universities such as Princeton to do away with an early admissions round will only serve to drive up overall application numbers in the regular round. Inadvertently, a bid to lower barriers and increase equality for prospective students has caused top universities to become more exclusive than ever. Despite these adverse effects, the trend shows no sign of stopping.
The next step in equalizing the field comes in the form of phasing out SAT subject tests and the SAT essay — a move aiming to assist those previously prevented from accessing SAT subject tests or those who tend to perform poorly under exam conditions. However, with the SAT subject test no longer an option to showcase specific talents, certain students like international students must now find other means to express their areas of expertise.
Although it is important for students to recognize that the role of testing in admissions is changing, it is inevitable that the SAT and ACT will continue to play a somewhat prominent role in the applications process, with many students seeing testing as an option to “prove” themselves. The University should remember that although testing may serve as a barrier to many, it also allows students who succeed in testing environments to showcase their academic potential. While testing need not play the essential role it once did, the University should not disregard it altogether.
Claudia Frykberg is a junior in the English department. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.