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Understanding Dartmouth's Revised Policy
What's Next for Applicants
The Impact on US Admissions Landscape
In response to the pandemic, scores of higher education institutions stopped requiring standardized test scores, suspending the requirement indefinitely, or instituting test-optional admissions criteria. This week Dartmouth reversed course, eliminating its test-optional policy and reinstating standardized test requirements for its next round of admissions. In this post we’ll share what we know about Dartmouth’s announcement and the potential implications for Dartmouth applicants and the larger US admissions landscape.
Officials at Dartmouth College have just announced that Dartmouth is reinstating its requirement for SAT or ACT scores for prospective students. Dartmouth’s announcement has particular significance. It means an Ivy League institution has decided to reverse course on the test-optional admissions criteria put in place at other Ivies and scores of other US colleges and universities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For context, the SAT and ACT have long been cornerstones of college admissions processes, but more recently some schools began to question their role in admissions, while thousands of schools moved to eliminate them or made them optional due to pandemic challenges.
These exams have historically played a pivotal role in admissions decisions at top-tier universities, deemed to provide uniquely unbiased indicators of academic potential. For many admissions officers, these test scores offer a snapshot of an applicant’s core academic skills in reading comprehension and math, free from subjectivity or other localized factors impacting GPA, such as the quality of the high school or teachers’ individual grading policies.
The term “test-optional” refers to a policy where submitting standardized test scores is at the discretion of the applicant. This policy gained widespread adoption in response to the pandemic, but at some schools the move away from standardized test scores reflected doubts about the value of tests for admissions or issues of equity in the context of a holistic admissions process.
Dartmouth is reinstating the testing requirement for next year, making it mandatory for those applying for the class of 2029. Applicants for the Fall 2025 semester, whether they apply by the Early Decision deadline, in the fall of 2024, or by the Regular Decision deadline, in January 2025, must include SAT or ACT score reports with their applications.
Given Dartmouth’s decision to make standardized test scores mandatory for admissions, all candidates who want to apply to Dartmouth must now consider the SAT or ACT as a crucial component of their application. This change is particularly significant for students from diverse educational backgrounds. When announcing the reversal, Dartmouth officials cited internal reviews suggesting that standardized test scores can level the playing field for many candidates from less advantaged backgrounds, especially in order to discern a candidate’s potential for admissions success from a more holistic view.
For applicants from traditionally high-performing schools, competitive test scores remain imperative. Conversely, those from under-resourced educational environments should understand that submitting test scores may be instrumental in helping them reach their admissions goals, even if other aspects of their application are less conventional.
Dartmouth’s decision, announced on February 5th, 2024, marks a departure from the prevailing test-optional trend. Currently, over 1,800 colleges and universities maintain test-optional policies, many implemented in response to the pandemic. Dartmouth's move could potentially signal the beginning of a broader shift among elite institutions, re-emphasizing the importance of standardized testing in admissions.
In addition to Dartmouth’s announcement, other signs also point to a growing interest in re-examining test-optional policies at top schools, suggesting that the test-optional policy trend may be losing momentum and, perhaps, headed for a larger-scale reversal.
A recent analysis by reporters at the NY Times led them to make the case that test scores were more objective indicators of core academic readiness, whereas reliance on grades and extracurriculars for admissions tended to favor the most privileged or more affluent applicants:
“Test scores, by contrast, seem to be useful at identifying students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have enormous potential, even if their scores aren’t quite as high on average as those of well-off applicants.”
Prior to the pandemic, many schools were growing attuned to concerns that standardized tests themselves might be culturally or economically biased, but now there’s a growing consensus, it seems, that SAT and ACT scores may have a crucial role to play in helping level the playing field for less advantaged students.
Officials at Dartmouth assert the decision to reverse course on the test-optional policy was based on a close look at the school’s admission data.
While acknowledging some of the challenges that testing requirements can present for students, Dartmouth officials contend that their data indicate test scores can have a crucial role to play in ensuring admissions officers have a holistic understanding of applicant qualifications, perhaps even more so for students from diverse backgrounds who might otherwise be overlooked.
With Dartmouth’s historically low admission rates, hovering around 6% in recent rounds, this policy change is unlikely to significantly alter admissions outcomes for most Dartmouth applicants. However, it may influence the applicant pool dynamics.
In any case, students targeting Dartmouth may now want to be sure to prioritize studying for the SAT or for the ACT as part of their admissions planning, ensuring scores reflect their highest potential. If you’re aspiring to attend Dartmouth in the future, it makes sense to have a proactive plan for providing SAT or ACT scores. This could entail taking practice tests, identifying areas for improvements, test preparations, and monitoring test locations, dates, and registration timelines.
In addition, it may be that more students opt not to apply to Dartmouth, in order to avoid the testing requirement, especially if the other Ivies, and other top schools stick with their test-optional admissions policies. As a result, the total number of students in the applicant pool for Dartmouth may decrease slightly.
Students from less advantaged backgrounds should also be sure to note Dartmouth’s apparent interest in holistic admissions and in recruiting students with diverse backgrounds and experiences.
When announcing the elimination of Dartmouth’s test-optional policy, school officials underscored their interest in addressing past inequities and recruiting a diverse generation of scholars from a range of educational backgrounds and experiences. That means a strong performance on these standardized tests could serve as a compelling indicator of readiness and resilience from a holistic admissions perspective, even for students with less conventional academic opportunities or achievements in high school.
It’s too soon to tell if other schools, including other Ivies, will follow Dartmouth's lead, also moving away from test-optional admissions criteria. However, given that many schools adopted these policies primarily to deal with pandemic logistics, Dartmouth’s announcement is significant but not necessarily a big surprise. The fact that emerging research is connecting test scores to opportunities for greater equity and diversity is also significant in light of past concerns about testing and cultural and economic bias.
If more leaders see a positive role for test scores in a holistic admissions process and with the pandemic behind us, students focused on college admissions planning should be ready for the possibility that standardized test requirements may soon be the norm again for admissions.
Given the shifting landscape and the advantages test scores may offer for admissions at leading schools, even when optional, you may want to think about how you'll prepare. Learning about the concepts tested, making a plan that will help you achieve the best scores possible, and being diligent about SAT/ACT testing and reporting timelines, are all practical steps that will put you on the road to test success.
Whether for SAT or ACT test questions or support, or other kinds of personalized admissions planning, students can book a free consultation with a Crimson counselor and start charting a path to Dartmouth or other leading universities.
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