Key Observations On Test-Optional College Admissions | James Wickenden | 3 Min Read

September 30, 2022

Having been the Dean of Admission at Princeton from 1978 to 1983, I read with interest that Harvard and Yale, along with scores of other colleges and universities have decided to adopt a “test-optional” policy for those applying for the 2023-24 academic year. This initiative prompted me to write a brief article about who might benefit and who might be adversely affected by this policy change. My thoughts are as follows:


  • Conscientious students who earn good grades but do not test as well as their contemporaries will experience a decline in their blood pressure.
  • The institutions of higher education that adopt a test-optional policy will likely experience an uptick in applications. In so doing, the CFOs of those institutions will work with a smile on their faces as the increase in applications that are submitted will also result in an uptick in application fees.
  • The CFOs of the colleges and universities that accept under 10 percent of the applicants would be delighted to see their respective institutions agree to a modest increase in the application fee. For example, if a university received 40,000 applications for the next academic year, a $10 increase in the application fee would generate a boost of $400,000 in the operating budget. The justification for this increase might be based on the need to hire additional readers to review and rate those who applied.
  • Coaches of intercollegiate sports are likely to be advocates of the test-optional policy because thanks to the pandemic of grade inflation, the transcripts of most of the applicants will not be significantly different. Athletes who attend schools that are not known for having a rigorous academic program may have grades that reflect how well these students perform compared to their peers. Thus, an athletic recruit from a school with modest academic standards and possessing an “All-A” transcript, who did not have to take the standardized tests, might have a better chance of admission than a recruit from a school with high academic standards and possessing a less impressive transcript.
  • Without test scores to assess the comparative ability of students and the comparative academic reputations of schools, teachers and students should benefit from those schools where the leadership decides to create and monitor an academic program that is more demanding than those of its peer group.


  • At the risk of stating the obvious, the Educational Testing Service will experience a decline in its revenue.
  • The college counselors will be challenged to function as impartial referees to work with a family whose children, contrary to the position of their parents, do not want to take the standardized tests. The opposite also applies in families with an applicant who might be eager to take the standardized tests while the parents, based on how the student has performed in the past, might be skeptical of their child being able to generate scores comparable to the average Verbal and Math scores of those who have been recently admitted.
  • The parents of children who intend to apply to the most selective colleges or universities and in so doing, take several standardized tests. These parents will see their financial resources decline as they not only pay for the tests, but they may also pay for the tutor who helps prepare the student for these tests, compensate an outside consultant to advise the student about how to respond to the required essays, and be willing to fork over hundreds of dollars in application fees to enable the child to use the Common Application to apply to 15 or more institutions of higher education.
  • The teachers of students who decide not to take the standardized tests will be pressured by the grade-conscious students who are willing to fight for every incremental uptick in their GPAs. These students may also complicate the lives of their teachers who will be asked to complete a Teacher Report for every institution to which the student has applied.
  • Although many highly selective institutions have made a concerted effort to admit first-generation college students, students from modest to poor socio-economic backgrounds will be at a disadvantage if they do not take the standardized tests. Admissions officers look for reasons to admit. If a school does not have a good academic reputation, an “all-A” transcript may not be sufficient. However, suppose the “all-A” transcript is supported by SAT scores in the 80th percentile or better. In that case, it might be sufficient to reduce the ambivalence of the admissions officers charged with the responsibility of reviewing and rating the materials submitted by the applicant.

In sum, this is a complex issue that requires college counselors to have the wisdom, patience, and understanding of the benefits and shortcomings of both sides of this issue.

Jim Wickenden

Jim is a Principal at DRG and Founder of Wickenden Associates, an affiliate of DRG. Having been the CEO of one of the premier education executive search firms in the United States, Jim brings unparalleled experience and networks to best serve clients. With over 30 years of experience identifying and guiding Heads of Schools and other senior administrators of schools across the country, Jim approaches each search with flexibility and openness that responds to the individual needs and concerns of schools and their leaders. Before founding Wickenden Associates, Jim served as the Dean of Admissions at Princeton University and Director of Student and Alumni Affairs at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A graduate of Tabor Academy and Princeton University, Jim holds a master’s degree in Counselor Education from Rutgers University, a master’s degree in the General Purposes of Education from Harvard University, and a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Boston University. As a former member of eight boards of independent schools with a wide range of missions and resource levels, Jim also knows firsthand the responsibilities shouldered by today’s trustees; and knows how to guide boards through tough transition processes and on good governance practices. Jim lives in Princeton, NJ, and when he is not at the office he enjoys reading enlightening books.

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