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Is Test-Optional a Best Option?

By Robert LeVine

We all know this student: top of the class, straight A’s, impressive resume, but average or sub-par test scores. Some students just don’t test well. Many factors come into play, from test anxiety to learning disabilities. Less than stellar SAT or ACT scores shouldn’t derail a student’s college aspirations.

It is true that “higher is better.” Large public universities tend to base their admissions decisions primarily on standardized test scores. State universities are taxpayer-funded, so they have to use objective criteria to justify who gets in and who does not. Besides, with so many applications (UC Berkeley had over 100,000 applicants last year), they don’t have time to review lots of essays, even if they wished. Whether or not the state universities will admit it, the only students whose applications receive a holistic review are the ones whose scores are on the borderline, hovering around the SAT or ACT threshold for the school.

On the other hand, most private universities tend to review applications more holistically. At private universities, SAT and ACT scores are just one factor to be considered, along with activities, essays, interviews and teacher recommendations. As a result, we see students denied admission to their local public university due to unimpressive test scores, but admitted to some of the country’s most selective universities. We’ve seen state-university “rejects” be admitted to schools like Cornell, University of Chicago and Babson. Therefore, students with unimpressive test scores should build a blended list of universities, including not only state universities, but also colleges that will give their application a holistic review.

There is too much pressure on the admissions exams. Standardized testing is big business in this country. College Board and ACT use marketing tricks to gain customers, from changing testing formats to manipulating testing schedules. Why do you think there is so much emphasis on the PSAT? Because students already-familiar with the PSAT will naturally purchase the SAT. Marketing is also the reason for the “new” SAT: the ACT started to outsell the SAT, so SAT had to find a new gimmick to attract customers.

But what if the test scores are very low? What if the test scores will drag down the entire application? Some colleges have started pushing back at the test-centric tactics. Consider applying to test-optional or test-flexible schools. In recent years, the test-optional trend has been gaining steam, with some universities seeking to deemphasize the importance of standardized tests. At test-optional schools, applicants are not required to submit SAT or ACT scores. At test-flexible schools, students can submit test scores of their choice, including AP or IB test scores, rather than SAT or ACT scores.

The National Center for Fair and Open Testing publishes a list of test-optional and test-flexible schools every year at The list currently has more than 950 accredited colleges and universities, and it gets longer every year, especially among the smaller liberal arts colleges. Bowdoin, Middlebury, Sewanee and Furman are test-optional. Even some of the larger, national universities have adopted this practice. Wake Forest, George Washington and the University of Texas (Austin) are test-optional. NYU is test-flexible.

Applying to schools that do not require testing can work to the advantage of the student whose aptitudes are not accurately reflected by their scores. Proponents of the test optional movement argue that reducing testing barriers (i.e. the cost of sitting for the tests) encourages economic diversity among student bodies. In fact, this was a topic of debate at the recent conference of the National Association of College Admission Counseling, where testing services complained that test-optional policies are “bad” while many colleges applauded the movement.

Most schools recognize that standardized test scores aren’t everything, and they certainly don’t give an accurate picture of every student. For those students who struggle on the SAT and ACT, test-optional might be a valuable option.

Robert A.G. Levine, president of Selective College Consulting Inc., can be reached at (813) 391-3760, email [email protected] or visit 


Ode to Garba

By Anu Varma Panchal

Diwali parties continue to sparkle around town, and in the cooling evening air, I still hear the occasional crackle of fireworks. But Navratri is definitely behind us. Chaniya cholis have been packed away, blisters nursed and dandiyas relegated to their storage spots.

But what fun those three weekends were.

I am an unabashed garba lover. I’ve never actually seen one in India, so the diasporic garbas I have been to are my version of authentic. Whether people are dancing on carpeted temple floors, over the basketball court markings of a gym floor or in the giant halls of the state fairground exhibition hall, there’s a joyousness in the atmosphere that transcends location.

One of the nights I attended this year, I spent almost the entire time sitting in the bleachers with my younger daughter, who isn’t quite as enthusiastic as I am about any event that requires donning itchy Indian clothes. While that wasn’t as entertaining as actually dancing, it did give me a chance to muse on the unique blend of energy, fun and spirituality that infuses garba, and ponder how dancing in circles can be such a great metaphor for life.

So here goes: Deep thoughts on garba, or why my Gujju husband should embrace this aspect of his culture and come dance with us one day.

Anu Varma Panchal is a mother of two and owner of

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