Yale announces new test-flexible admissions policy

This week Yale’s office of undergraduate admissions announced a new policy on standardized testing for first-year and transfer applicants.
Illustration: Student walking toward Phelps Hall

(Illustration by Eri Griffin)

This week Yale’s office of undergraduate admissions announced a new policy on standardized testing for first-year and transfer applicants.  After four years with a test-optional policy that allowed applicants to decide whether or not to submit test scores, Yale will resume requiring scores of all applicants. But it will expand the list of tests that fulfill the requirement to include AP and IB exams in addition to the SAT and ACT.

Here, Jeremiah Quinlan, dean of undergraduate admissions and financial aid, discusses Yale’s new test-flexible policy and the data and analyses that helped persuade the admissions office to reinstate a test requirement for all applicants. He also reflects on the office’s responses to the pandemic and the 2023 U.S. Supreme Court decision on the use of race in admissions.

You’ve worked in admissions at Yale for nearly 20 years. What role do standardized tests play in the undergraduate admissions process?

Jeremiah Quinlan: Test scores convey a relatively small amount of information compared with the rich collection of insights and evidence we find in a complete application. I believe standardized tests are imperfect and incomplete alone, but I also believe scores can help establish a student’s academic preparedness for college-level work.

When used together with other elements in an application, especially a high school transcript, test scores help establish the academic foundation for any case we consider. Of course, our admissions decisions reflect much more than just a student’s academic preparedness, and, indeed, a majority of our more than 50,000 applicants for undergraduate admission each year present credentials that demonstrate they are well prepared to succeed at a demanding college like Yale.

Because the admissions committee needs to first establish an applicant’s academic foundation before it can consider their many other strengths and potential contributions to Yale, we’ve found that standardized tests are especially valuable for students attending high schools with fewer academic resources and fewer college-preparatory courses.

What are some common misconceptions about standardized tests and their role in Yale’s selection process?

Quinlan: The greatest misconceptions are that scores are fed into a weighting rubric or algorithm, and that scores below a certain threshold “hurt” an applicant. The reality is that a real person is always reviewing an applicant’s scores and considering them in combination with other academic indicators as well as a student’s secondary school context.

We also admit students with a wider range of scores than people might expect. The job of the admissions committee is much more complex and, thankfully, interesting than simply lining up students by their scores! Our process is, of course, very selective, but it is also holistic and contextual. Each applicant is considered as an individual, and officers conduct a whole-person review of each file.

What would you say is your goal for the new test-flexible policy?

Quinlan: Our first goal is to better align our policy to our communication to prospective applicants and to our practice. We found that by inviting students to apply without any scores, some applicants unwittingly hurt their chances of admission by withholding scores that would have been useful to the admissions committee, even though they were below the median range of our enrolling students.

I want to be honest and transparent with our applicants: test scores are not the core of our review process, but they are useful, and they can help applicants, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Along those lines, our second goal is to give our admissions committees reliable evidence to respond to strong students from all backgrounds. Over the past four years, we learned that our admissions committees can function without test scores. But when operating a process that requires you to make predictions about the future with incomplete information, more evidence is better than less.

And finally, we want to empower students to put their best foot forward in the application. If the pandemic has taught us anything it’s the value of flexibility! I like that the inclusion of the new test types pulls some of the focus away from the ACT and SAT, and we now have the research to support that subject-based exams such as AP and IB also predict Yale grades, even when controlling for other factors.

Let’s talk about that research. What insights did you glean from analyzing your admissions data during the test-optional admissions cycles?

Quinlan: Yale’s Office of Institutional Research has been an incredible partner over the past four years. After each admissions cycle they’ve analyzed our applicant pool, the group of admitted students, and the first-year class. They’ve also looked at the academic performance of students admitted with and without test scores.

First, we found that test scores have continued to predict academic performance in Yale College. Simply put, students with higher scores have been more likely to have higher Yale GPAs, and test scores are the single greatest predictor of a student’s performance in Yale courses in every model we have constructed.

We also found that students who have been admitted to Yale without test scores have done relatively well in their Yale courses. However, we have further found a statistically significant difference in average GPA between those who applied with and without test scores.

Yale has now enrolled more than 1,000 undergraduates who did not include scores with their applications. In each of those cases, the admissions committee felt confident that it had evidence of a student’s academic preparation from other components of the application. Our analyses have found that applicants without test scores have been less likely to be admitted; concerningly, this was especially true for applicants from lower-income backgrounds and those attending high schools with fewer college-preparatory courses.

Finally, Yale’s applicant pool has grown tremendously since 2020. More than 57,000 students applied for first-year admission this year, up from 35,000 before we adopted a test-flexible policy — an increase of 66% in just four years. The pool has become larger, but we have not seen that it grew to include many more applicants with strong academic preparation..

Many critics of standardized tests argue that they are a barrier for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. What is your response to those who view Yale’s new policy as step in the wrong direction?

Quinlan: The entire admissions office staff is keenly aware of the research on the correlations between standardized test scores and household income as well as the persistent gaps by race. Our experience, however, is that including test scores as one component of a thoughtful whole-person review process can help increase the diversity of the student body rather than decrease it.

We believe that a student body that is diverse along all dimensions provides a better learning experience for everyone. I am proud of the initiatives we have launched in response to the 2023 Supreme Court ruling on race in admissions, and the progress we have made in just a few months. If I thought this policy was likely to set any of those efforts back, we would not adopt it.

In addition to the research suggesting that requiring scores can help students from disadvantaged backgrounds, I am buoyed by the experience of significantly increasing the diversity in Yale College in my years as dean before the pandemic necessitated a test-optional policy. Between 2013 and 2019, the number of first-year students eligible for a Pell Grant increased by 95%, first-generation college students increased 65%, and under-represented minority students increased 52%.

Yes, students with greater resources earn higher scores on average, but they also benefit from advantages in every other element of the application. Our whole person review process allows us to consider every piece of the application, including testing, in the context of a student’s high school, neighborhood, and household.

Our research and experience with tens of thousands of applications over the past four years have demonstrated that when an application lacks testing, admissions officers place greater emphasis on other elements of the file. For students attending well-resourced high schools, substitutes for standardized tests are relatively easy to find: transcripts brim with advanced courses, teachers are accustomed to praising students’ unique classroom contributions, and activities lists are full of enrichment opportunities. A policy that results in increased emphasis on these elements, we found, has the effect of advantaging the advantaged.

For students attending high schools with fewer resources, applications without scores can inadvertently leave admissions officers with scant evidence of their readiness for Yale. When students attending these high schools include a score with their application — even a score below Yale’s median range — they give the committee greater confidence that they are likely to achieve academic success in college. Our research strongly suggests that requiring scores of all applicants serves to benefit and not disadvantage students from under-resourced backgrounds.

This flexible testing policy is new for Yale. Given your experience and this research, why not simply return to requiring the ACT or SAT?

Quinlan: During our four years of considering roughly half of our applicants without ACT or SAT scores, we found that subject-based exams such as AP and IB can add valuable evidence to our committee discussions, just as ACT and SAT do. We also have new data from the Office of Institutional Research on the predictive power of these exams.

The second reason is simply that the world has changed, and the ACT and SAT are now less central to many students’ college application processes. Most selective colleges remain test optional, and some — including the entire University of California system — are now “test-blind.” We do not want to disadvantage or disqualify applicants who have not had the ACT or SAT as part of their planning for college.

Finally, we are in a dynamic moment for standardized testing. There are efforts to design and roll out new tests, and there is more energy for developing alternatives to the SAT or ACT than ever before. Although our research on the predictive power of the four tests we will accept next cycle is compelling, I like that our policy is flexible by design and can easily accommodate future additions to the list of required scores.

What is your advice to students who attend schools that do not offer AP or IB courses? Does this new policy disadvantage those students?

Quinlan: Yale’s policy does not mean that students without AP or IB courses or scores are disadvantaged. I hope students and educators will base their curricular decisions around their community’s interests and needs, and not interpret this policy as elevating AP or IB courses over other rigorous college preparatory programs, such as dual enrollment and Cambridge A Levels, to name just two. One of the most fascinating and rewarding parts of admissions work is seeing remarkably promising and well-prepared applicants who have completed an amazingly wide range of secondary school programs.

Students who have not completed any AP or IB exams before their senior year of high school should ensure that they complete the ACT or SAT. Fortunately, many schools, districts, and states now allow students to complete either of these exams for free during the school day.

Scores that are lower compared with Yale’s overall first-year class can still be helpful to the admissions committee. As tempting as it is to reduce the complexities of our process down to a number, students should know that scores are always considered in context and always in combination with other elements of the file.

What is your advice to prospective applicants as they think about their scores?

Quinlan: The holistic admissions process is, by its nature, opaque. In my experience, this tends to drive students, counselors, and families to place disproportionate emphasis on standardized tests, which offer the allure of consistency and transparency. But, fortunately, the accomplished, complex, and dynamic young people who apply to Yale are much more interesting than their test scores.

My advice to students is to not let your scores define you: whether your scores are perfect or are below Yale’s typical range, it is other factors that make an application stand out in our pool. These include qualities like curiosity, leadership, creativity, care for others, and resourcefulness. Test scores don’t shine a light on any of those qualities. Our office is fond of the maxim “not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” I think it captures our values well.

How can prospective students and educators learn more about Yale’s new policy?

Quinlan: We’ve put a lot of new content on our website, admissions.yale.edu. The particulars of our new policy are laid out at admissions.yale.edu/standardized-testing and my statement announcing the policy is at admissions.yale.edu/test-flexible-announcement.

We also recorded three episodes of our popular podcast, Inside the Yale Admissions Office, about the new policy. We cover the big picture, the details, and how we got here. Episodes are available at admissions.yale.edu/podcast and on all podcast platforms.

Share this with Facebook Share this with X Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this

Media Contact

Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1345