Karen Richardson ’93
Photo: Nick Donnoli Productions
The impact of making standardized tests optional is unclear

In April, as the world continued into a second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Princeton offered admission to 1,498 students for the Class of 2025. Prospective students had until May 3 to make their decisions.

Applications were up 15 percent at Princeton, in a trend that stretched across the Ivies and other top U.S. colleges. Princeton was among a sizable group of institutions that suspended standardized-testing requirements for this admission cycle (students had the option to submit test scores), and many experts, including Dean of Admission Karen Richardson ’93, believe the test-optional policy contributed to the jump in applications. 

Advocates for eliminating testing requirements argue that it will increase diversity in the pool of applicants and point to data released by colleges that show increases in people of color. 

Richardson cautioned that at Princeton, the impact of making standardized tests optional is unclear. “There are a lot of variables from last year to this year, including not having had early action, seeing a 15 percent bump in the pool, and having such a large number of students who deferred [more than 200 from the Class of 2024] and are coming back into this class,” she said. “It’s difficult to tell ... what effects the test-optional [policy] had on any of that.” 

But the University’s statistics did show gains in diversity: Sixty-eight percent of U.S. citizens and permanent residents in the admitted group self-identified as people of color, up from 61 percent a year ago. Twenty-two percent of those admitted will be first-generation college students, up from 17 percent last year. 

A total of 37,601 students applied, and just under 4 percent were admitted, according to a University announcement. “It does not feel good to me to have to say no to so many students,” Richardson said. Other Ivies saw similar jumps. Harvard received 57,435 applications (up 42 percent) with an admit rate of 3.4 percent, while Yale received 46,905 applications (up 33 percent) with an admit rate of 4.6 percent. All of the seven Ivies that released admission data showed drops in the admit rate. 

Richardson does not think the test-optional policy will continue permanently. “We do consider testing an important piece of the overall holistic process.”

The subject of test requirements has been a hot-button issue across the country. In January, the College Board announced it would discontinue SAT subject tests and essays. Some have argued that schools should do away with test requirements altogether. “In 20 years of preparing kids for the ACT and SAT, I really am deeply saddened by the effect that it has on students, which is to imply that some gifts are more important and valuable than others,” said Robin Pool ’93, who is program director for the college-admission consulting company Your Steps to College Inc. and is a former Princeton admission officer. She added, “I feel like it’s just not fair that some kids have gifts that enable them to succeed on this test and other people have equally wonderful and valuable and productive gifts, but they’re not well-suited for the test so they feel less successful and less valuable.”

For the 2021–22 admission cycle, the University announced that the test-optional policy will be extended. The single-choice early-action deadline will be reinstated after being put on hold last year.

Richardson told PAW she does not think the test-optional policy will continue permanently. “We do consider testing an important piece of the overall holistic process,” she said. “So, it’s one piece, but it’s still a piece, and it helps us to look at a student’s academics [and] put them in context. We’re always putting testing in context. We’re not expecting a 790 [out of 800 per section] or above from every student.” Part of that context includes considering where an applicant went to school, what the average test scores for their high school are, and whether a student had access to test prep, she added. Richardson declined to share how many applicants submitted scores this year. 

Since recruitment was virtual, admission officers were able to reach new schools and prospective students this year, Richardson said. The office rolled out a number of new ways to connect with students remotely, including virtual information sessions, campus tours, and alumni interviews, as well as opportunities to connect with current undergrads for more candid conversations. 

There were also challenges. “Our admission team has not been in the same room together in over a year,” Richardson said, adding that working remotely was difficult at times. “There are long days anyway, but to do a lot of this over a computer screen is challenging. But I am so fortunate to have such an amazing team that is so committed to the work that we do.” 

As Princeton prepares for the 2021–22 admission cycle, Richardson said her office is planning to continue recruiting virtually, for now, but they hope that if University and state guidelines change, they will be able to do some in-person work as well. “I think the fact that we saw such a large bump in applications means that students are still interested in Princeton and attending the University,” she said. “I think that they gained a lot of information about the University through our various channels.”