/ Test optional. Confusion mandatory.

Test optional. Confusion mandatory.

“Garbage in; garbage out” is a popular phrase to describe the effect of bad information on outcomes. Think of your local weather service: “Today it will be sunny. No chance of showers.” And you end up drenched from a downpour – bad info led to a bad outcome for you. When given bad info, it’s actually those who do not trust that info and pack an umbrella anyway who end up dry.

So believing bad information tends to lead to bad decisions, which more often lead to bad outcomes. The same is true with colleges’ test optional admission policies: misinformation on the part of colleges disadvantages students without access to quality advice. How so? Almost all test optional colleges explain (often in these same words) that “test optional means test optional.” Got it? Glad we cleared that up. Given that they’re bastions of higher education, colleges are really good at explaining things. Want to know what sesquipedalian means? Here’s the same straightforward, honest answer to that too: “Sesquipedalian means sesquipedalian.” It’s almost like that’s not helpful at all…

Almost all colleges’ test optional policies lead to inevitable confusion. As an example, I’ll unpack Tulane’s post “To Submit or To Not Submit?” in which Owen Knight interviews VP of Enrollment and Dean of Admission, Satya Dattagupta. Like any good dean of admissions discussing his college’s test optional admission policies, Dattagupta deftly dodges answering not only the question posed in the post’s title but also virtually every other question asked to him. Here are snippets of the post and interview, and then a deconstruction of them.

So far, it sounds as if students who do not submit test scores might be equally considered for admission. Knight says that “46% of the class applied test optional.” The problem is that – like most other colleges – Tulane doesn’t tell us the whole story. In the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, 43% of all Common App applicants submitted test scores.1 If the same percentage of applicants did so to Tulane and that 43% of score submitting applicants became 54% of the class, that means that test submitting applicants likely had over a 50% higher chance of admission than non-submitting students. So, not considered equally. Further, we don’t know the qualifications of the score submitting and non-submitting students. For instance, if students who submit test scores can then get accepted with lower grades (which studies show us tends to be the case), then students not submitting test scores are at a large disadvantage because they will have to get higher grades to gain admittance to make up for the absence of test scores.2 Knight tells us that test optional students still got scholarships – but, again, what percentage did? If 99% of students who received scholarships submitted test scores, then saying that test optional students can still get scholarships is more-or-less meaningless. And, given that Tulane’s post is trying to emphasize its test optional policy, I think they would report data that supported their test optional policy if the data did support it. So while they’re trying to reassure me that they “really do mean they are optional,” I’m already getting the feeling that test optional policies might be disadvantaging students who do not submit scores, especially if those students don’t have something to make up for the lack of test scores.

Ok, so I will be considered for admission if I don’t submit, but, again, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m considered equally…

Again, considered equally? Dattagupta says he’s “not going to lie,” and I think maybe he was going to tell the truth after that. But then he just says words that are entirely unhelpful for actually understanding admission and scholarship chances without test scores. If Tulane emphasizes the “academic achievements” of a student, is that code for “test scores”? In the context, it kind of seems like it might be. Again, I get the feeling that test scores actually might be really helpful.

This is like watching someone belly flop off a diving board. Ouch. And then get back up and do the same thing again. Dude, please just answer the question…

Dattagupta says that a good score will never hurt an applicant, but doesn’t that mean good scores can help an applicant and that a low score might hurt an applicant? He then gives a score range, but then says that they admit students outside of that range, which suggests that the range is meaningless… I get the feeling that what he really wants to say is: “Don’t submit test scores to Tulane if you’re below the bottom of our 50% range, so not a 30 or below and not a 1400 or below.”

Words and more words that tell us absolutely nothing.

So, just so we’re on the same page, you’re so confident in your test optional policy that… you might not continue it? At this point, I think Dattagupta has confused even Knight, who is doing the interview. Take a look at Knight’s next question.

I don’t think that answer helped Knight – or us – be any less confused. So, Tulane’s Dean of Admission is giving the advice to get admissions advice about Tulane from others… – but not too many others. But, Dattagupta, aren’t you – literally – the person we should be listening to for advice? I kind of feel like people told me to ask you for advice, but then you’re telling me to ask them for advice, and then they’re telling me to ask you for advice, and now I’m in a perpetual time loop.

But, in all seriousness, think about how problematic this is: Tulane’s Dean of Admission is telling students to go elsewhere for admission advice to Tulane – he wants someone else to tell them the truth that he can’t say out loud. But what if a student doesn’t have access to quality advice?

Luckily, the interviewer chimes in at the end to add onto the Dean’s clear-cut answers:

Now, finally, I have the answer I’m looking for. If I think that my scores make my application stronger, then I should submit them. Awesome. Glad you’ve given me the ultimate advice for any teenager: do what you think is best. But, you should trust Tulane to give you a “full and holistic review,” though they have not given us any information on what that actually means and what role test scores actually still play in their admissions process.

With no hint of self-reflective irony, Knight effectively sums up his interview in one sentence: “Test optional means test optional.” To which I can only add: “Sesquipedalian means sesquipedalian.” It would have been better for students if Dattagupta had given no answers at all.


                Tulane is not an anomaly – its test optional policy is equally confusing to that of most other colleges. Colleges should just be honest: if you can get good test scores, you should, because good test scores actually do give students an advantage in the admissions process. Instead, their lack of transparency puts students without good advice at a disadvantage and leads to deserving kids making ill-informed decisions and being denied admission for not taking the SAT or ACT and submitting good test scores.

What now?

So, to actually answer the question posed in the title of the Tulane article (to submit or not to submit?), here’s what students should do:

Unless a college is test-blind (meaning they won’t consider test scores at all), then they’re not “truly test optional” – whatever that means anyway. They are “test preferred” or “selectively test optional” – meaning that they give preferential admission chances to students with good test scores, and they are only test optional for some students in some circumstances (first generation students, low-income students, and – at colleges that need the money – students who can pay the full price of admission).3 A clearer way to think of it is this: before the college went “test optional,” could you have gotten into the school with a test score lower than their middle 50% range of scores? If so, then the school is actually test optional for you: you’re able to get in without test scores because you could have gotten in with low test scores to that school. If you couldn’t get into that school with low test scores before, then you most likely can’t get into that school now without test scores.

And, if a college tells you otherwise and tells you to “trust them,” then treat them the same way you would treat anyone who tells you that. “Prove it.” If they can’t, then don’t trust their bad advice.

A message to colleges: Honesty shouldn’t be this hard. Just be honest with students so that they don’t have bad outcomes because of the bad advice that you’re giving to them.

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