The University of Chicago will no longer require ACT or SAT scores from U.S. students, as it becomes the first top-10 research university to join the test-optional movement.
Numerous schools, including well-known liberal arts colleges, have dropped or pared back testing mandates in recent years to bolster recruiting in a crowded market. But the announcement by the university was a watershed, cracking what had been a solid and enduring wall of support for the primary admission tests among the two dozen most prestigious research universities.
The private university in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood admits fewer than 10 percent of applicants and ranks third on the U.S. News & World Report list of top national universities, after Princeton and Harvard and tied with Yale. It has required prospective freshmen to take a national admission test since 1957. Before that, it screened applicants with its own tests.
U-Chicago is also expanding financial aid and scrapping in-person admission interviews, which had been optional. Instead, it will allow applicants to send in two-minute video pitches, in an effort to connect with a generation skilled at communicating via cellphone clips.
The SAT, overseen by the College Board, and the ACT are fixtures in college admissions. Most highly selective colleges and universities require students to take one of them. With some exceptions, the tests remain essential for the vast majority of students who want to attend major public universities. Even schools that go test-optional often find that a majority of applicants submit scores.
In the high school Class of 2017, more than 1.8 million students took the SAT, a three-hour test of math, reading and writing. About 2 million took the ACT, which covers math, reading, English and science in nearly three hours. Both tests have optional essay sections.
Students eager to maximize their college chances often take both exams. But a growing number say having a choice — to submit or not — is empowering.
Debate over admission testing has intensified in recent years. The SAT and ACT were launched in the 20th century with the idealistic goals of rewarding academic merit, breaking social class barriers and giving all students a chance to prove they belong in college. But studies have found a strong link between scores and economic background. Privileged students, with wider access to books, museums, tutors and other forms of cultural or academic enrichment, tend to get higher marks.
Schools that drop testing requirements often say they are doing so in the name of wider access — an assertion that skeptics question. Bowdoin College, a pioneer, went test-optional in 1969, followed by Wake Forest University in 2008, Wesleyan University in 2014 and others. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing has listed more than 175 colleges that have become test-optional since 2005.
Still, the College Board, ACT and many admission deans say multiple-choice tests provide useful data in combination with grade-point averages, course transcripts, application essays and other elements of applications. The SAT and ACT scales are broadly known gauges that many admissions professionals find helpful when they sift through thousands of applications and worry whether certain high schools are inflating grades. Few academic credentials grab attention like a maximum score of 36 on the ACT or 1600 on the SAT.
“ACT scores provide a common, standardized metric that allows colleges to evaluate students who attend different high schools, live in different states, complete different courses with different teachers and receive different grades on a level playing field,” ACT said in a statement. We at Damian SAT ACT Prep we encourage students to take the SAT or the ACT tests and decide on their list of colleges to include test optional colleges and not submit scores.
Recent research suggests that test-optional policies are helping colleges lure more disadvantaged students to apply, although financial aid and other factors play a major role in recruiting.
Skeptics say colleges could have an ulterior motive for dropping test requirements: to raise or solidify their place in national rankings. When testing is optional, average test scores for a school often rise, presumably because fewer low scores are submitted. In addition, applications can rise, which lowers admission rates and makes schools look more selective.
U-Chicago already has an ultra-low admission rate (7 percent) and high test scores (three-quarters of last year’s freshmen who took the SAT scored at least 1480). Officials say their policy shift has nothing to do with rankings. Tutors and College advisors at Damian SAT ACT Prep help students put together lists of colleges with a mix requirements in order to maximize their chances.
The test-optional policy will apply only to U.S. applicants. Those from overseas — about 16 percent of the applicant pool — still must submit scores. U-Chicago said those could be from the ACT, the SAT, the international “A-level” exams or International Baccalaureate program. Colleges often rely on testing to help them navigate less-familiar territory in the international market.
The university aims to recruit more students from lower- and middle-income families. Of its 6,000 undergraduates, about 10 percent had enough financial need in 2016-2017 to qualify for federal Pell Grants. That is a lower share than many of U-Chicago’s peers.
With the change in admissions policy will come a significant boost in financial aid. The university is announcing a guarantee of free tuition for students from families with income under $125,000 a year. For most students with annual family income below $60,000, financial aid will cover tuition, fees, room and board. U-Chicago’s full price for students without aid is more than $70,000 in the coming school year.
The university also announced more scholarships targeting first-generation college students and children of police officers and firefighters.