Traditional Student Demand

Parents Want to Know, What Does Test Optional Really Mean?

Blog post cover image

June 14-16, 2023

Boston, MA

In the current enrollment cycle, more than 1,800 four-year colleges and universities are test-optional or test-blind according to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing. Broadly sparked by pandemic necessity, most institutions have extended their testing policies beyond the pandemic, often signaling a wish to remove barriers of access to higher education.

But even the best of intentions can create unintended consequences. They are left wondering what a strong college application looks like, and how colleges evaluate candidates.

What Should Matter in Admissions?

Regardless of what actually happens behind the black box of the admissions office, prospects have their own ideas about what should matter most in a fair process. Figure 1 shows that these criteria are largely aligned between prospective students and their parents, but also differ in some key ways.


Admissions Criteria Parents and Students Believe Should MatterFigure 1.


Students and parents both believe that high school GPA, a student’s character, and the challenge of their coursework should carry the most weight in the admissions decision. Students, however, place more emphasis on subjective, personal criteria like recommendations, the application essay, and extracurricular activities. Parents show a greater preference for quantifiable metrics—specifically the high school GPA but also test scores.

What Parents Really Think about Test-Optional Policies

About a third of parents believe that standardized test scores should matter in the admissions process. Further, when parents were asked what they believe colleges actually focus on, nearly two-thirds reported they think test scores are a key criterion in the application evaluation. While students seem to welcome the move to test-optional policies with the hope of encountering a more holistic approach, parents appear less sure that the practice either is, or should become, a thing of the past.

Does this mean the test-optional message trumpeted by institutions has not reached parents? This seems unlikely.

More likely, pandemic necessity forced institutions to quickly implement policies and procedures that all looked a bit different from each other, resulting in confusion. Likewise, some institutions better communicated the changes to prospects and their families than others. Students, perhaps nimbler in times of change and less familiar with the way things have always been, were better able to adjust to this organized chaos than their parents.

Why the Student-Parent Relationship in College Search Matters Here

But if students embrace test-optional policies, why should it matter what parents think? The answer lies in the nature of the student-parent relationship in college search.

Parents are key influencers in a student’s decision to which colleges to apply. More than half of parents (55%) said they would encourage their children to apply to a school that does not require, but will consider test scores if submitted. Just 38% of parents said they would encourage their children to apply to a school that does not consider test scores at all.

A potential explanation for this attitude may be revealed in Figure 2 which shows parent perceptions of the quality of a school based on its testing policies.


Parent Perceptions of School Quality Based on Standardized Test PolicyFigure 2.


Figure 2 shows that most parents tie the use of test scores to the quality of the school. Schools that require test scores are most often seen as high quality, followed by schools that do not require but will consider them under specific circumstances.

All of this points to a greater issue: uncertainty about what test-optional or test-blind really means. Should their child participate in the test? Should they submit scores even if it is not required? Will not submitting scores put them at a disadvantage in either the admission or financial aid processes?

Some institutions, like Penn State, have been transparent about these questions in their communications around their test optional policies—a good start in educating families about the role of testing in the admissions process.

The Bottom Line

Many prospective families remain uncertain about what test-optional means. As a result, we are seeing applications increase faster than the number of applicants. This frenzy, in turn, increases uncertainty for institutions: How committed are students to the school? Will they yield?

Clearer communication may help alleviate anxiety for everyone involved. Here are two considerations for schools rethinking how to talk about admissions policies:

  • Myth-bust test optional policies. Different institutions handle test-optional policies in different ways. This lack of clarity and conformity opens the door to misperceptions and rumors. Combat these by clearly stating what test-optional (or test-blind) means at your institution. Who should submit test scores? How much do they really matter in admissions decisions? How will you make decisions around merit aid? These are questions on families’ minds. Remove the guesswork by answering them upfront.


  • Remove the “black box” around your admissions process. The uncertainty that students and families feel is not exclusive to test-optional policies, but related to what has always been a mystery to prospective families: How do colleges make admissions decisions? Internet boards are filled with speculation about the application process and credentials needed to get into specific, often highly competitive, institutions based only on anecdotal evidence. Institutions can alleviate this stress by not only clarifying the desired admissions criteria, but also simplifying the process where possible.


Never Miss Your Wake-Up Call

Learn more about our team of expert research analysts here.

Eduventures Senior Analyst at Encoura

This recruitment cycle challenged the creativity of enrollment teams as they were forced to recreate the entire enrollment experience online. The challenge for this spring will be getting proximate to admitted students by replicating new-found practices to increase yield through the summer’s extended enrollment cycle.

By participating in the Eduventures Admitted Student Research, your office will gain actionable insights on:

  • Nationwide benchmarks for yield outcomes
  • Changes in the decision-making behaviors of incoming freshmen that impact recruiting
  • Gaps between how your institution was perceived and your actual institution identity
  • Regional and national competitive shifts in the wake of the post-COVID-19 environment
  • Competitiveness of your updated financial aid model

Thursday, April 6, 2023, at 2pm ET/ 1pm CT

As we finally seem to be resettling into post-pandemic enrollment trends, it’s important to evaluate how today’s adult undergraduate & graduate prospects are now making decisions about continuing their educations.

This population –including both undergraduate and graduate students– is showing that they are distinct from their 2019 counterparts. While adult students continue to have similar motivations as past years when considering postsecondary education, their commitment, modality preferences, credential interests, and fields of study have made noteworthy shifts.




Like, Follow, Share.

Subscribe card logo

Never Miss Your

Wake-Up Call