top of page

Why aren’t more overseas universities going test-optional?

Student library

The SAT cancellations due to Covid-19 started rolling in this past March.

Then May also fell through.

June as well, and almost half the August tests, too, were cancelled.

Hundreds of thousands of rising seniors have been affected, and if you did manage to get an SAT score in the books, consider yourself lucky.

Meanwhile, much of the testing anxiety for those starting the college application process this fall has been countered by the fact that so many U.S. colleges have announced test-optional policies for this cycle (and possibly beyond).

In fact, there are more than 1,450 accredited, 4-year institutions now test-optional in the U.S. for Fall 2021 admissions, according to FairTest.

In the news recently, the NCAA also announced students enrolling full-time starting in 2021 who will play Division I or II athletics will be exempt from submitting standardized tests.

The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) also released a report calling for colleges and universities to effectively reexamine testing policies for admissions, citing inequities—inequities that will be even further exacerbated by the pandemic.

And just this week, a judge ruled that test-optional alone isn't enough for the University of California system; it's prohibited from using the ACT or SAT at all.

But what about students interested in college abroad? How do they still apply for degrees overseas?

Are they the real victims in all this?

Yes and no.

I mentioned in a previous post that Macquarie University in Australia was quick to go test-optional.

Since then Goldsmiths, University of London also joined the ranks, and The University of Edinburgh "will look at alternative evidence... college and honours level classes with strong grades in relevant subjects to the programme (major) to which you are applying."

There are likely more in the works, but proposed changes within overseas universities -- most of which are large and public -- tend to take a lot of time, effort and papers put forward to committees that maybe meet once a month at best (usually driven by the U.S. recruiters themselves).

But the real answer to the first question comes down to the fundamental way in which other countries view secondary education in the U.S. -- that the U.S. high school diploma is not equivalent to theirs.

Secondary education in the UK

Take the UK for example, which saw a record 5,165 applications from the U.S. in 2019 according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) International Insights--the most popular destination for U.S. high school students applying for degrees abroad.

Scotland aside, UK students generally study 13 years in primary and secondary school before three years of university, specializing and choosing their subjects as early as age 14.

Students then take the General Certificate in Secondary Education (GCSE) exams around age 16 and can choose to go on to Advanced Level (A-Level) study, ultimately taking a minimum of three A-Level exams to get into university.

It's these A-Levels (in the news recently for a chaos of its own) that are seen as more rigorous; basically equivalent to the first year of university in the U.S., and that's why UK universities generally ask for three Advanced Placement (AP) exams for U.S. students to get in -- or one year of university study.

Students who don't meet these requirements can do a Foundation Year before the 3-year degree -- still a 4-year program in total, no different from a standard U.S. college experience.

However, in normal circumstances, there are a wide range of universities abroad that have been starting to accept SAT subject tests in place of AP's and some others that will accept U.S. students on the basis of the SAT/ACT and GPA alone.

This is still quite problematic though if students can't test -- period.

Will all 5,000+ applicants be heading for a Foundation Year then?

Overseas universities are aware of the SAT/ACT cancellations of this year, but few have been able to jump on board with the test-optional trend; to do so would require a fundamental change in view on how secondary education in the U.S. actually stacks up.

I agree to some extent; GPA's are easy to inflate and can vary widely from school to school.

Matthew Pietrafetta from Inside Higher Ed also defends standardized testing, saying that it actually "promotes rigor" in teaching and instruction.

The bottom line on test-optional admissions

My advice for rising seniors interested in applying abroad who haven't yet been able to test?

Unfortunately, keep trying; most universities overseas can give conditional offers of admission and can then wait for your scores through the summer before you start to officially confirm your place.

Ireland is an excellent example of this since students don't even require student visas; you could literally receive your test scores, meet your conditions and jump on a plane--not ideal, but better than nothing.

And for those in their early high school years?

Do yourselves a favor and consider adding 1-3 AP courses to your curriculum; you may not even need an SAT or ACT if so.

In the meantime, I do think as this pandemic continues, some institutions overseas will become more flexible and assess students on more of a case by case basis.

But without suitable alternatives in this climate, overseas universities that lack flexibility will unfortunately miss out on the top academic talent in the U.S. for reasons totally out of a student's control.


Interested in applying for college or grad school abroad?

59 views0 comments



G'day! My name is Sara, and I'm the founder of College Apps Abroad and a Certified Educational Planner (CEP), one of only 40 CEP's in California and 300 worldwide. I have more than 10 years of experience working in international recruitment and admissions, and I've studied and lived overseas myself in the UK, Ireland, Australia and Brazil for almost a decade. I've also worked for some of the world's top institutions, including The University of Edinburgh, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and The University of Western Australia (UWA)!

Screen Shot 2020-11-22 at 6.50.25 PM.png
bottom of page