Colleges across the country require a range of different kinds of things in their applications. Once upon a time, it was news when schools went “test optional,” which has been true for Shimer College for some time. Our application requires two essays (which can be composed for other purposes — an essay you wrote for school, an essay you are also using elsewhere, an essay written specifically for us), an interview (in person or via one of the wonderful varieties of technology lout there), high school grades, recommendations, etcetera.
But, we are “test optional.” Lately, this notion has been receiving new attention as more schools join early adopters of this idea.
What does test optional mean? It means you may — or may not — submit ACT or SAT scores. It means that schools like Shimer — and there are others in Chicagoland — know that these tests are onto always useful in determining whether an application is or is not a “good fit” for the school. More importantly, such schools know that such scores do not necessarily predict likelihood of success at the school.
Underlying this — and recent decisions to accept videos at some colleges or to ask students to “curate” their application portfolios — is debate about how we choose students to comprise our classes at various colleges. A critical aspect of this is how we can get to know potential students well enough to ensure that when we are accepting them — or not accepting them — it is good for them, for other students they will join, and for the college itself.
Underlying this kind of decision for Shimer is this question: how do we best gauge that someone interested in Shimer is a person who is prepared to succeed — and grow — in the kind of liberal education that we provide. Will they be able to be active in our participatory democracy? Will they be a contributor to classes in a way that means everyone in their class grows from their contributions? Who are they beyond the life of the mind and how will that connect them to Shimer’s community? Given our focus on writing, essays matter a lot. Given our emphasis on autonomy, your choice of what essays to provide to us matters. Given our emphasis on discussion – as about talking but also about listening — interviews matter as well. Given how important your college choice is to you, visiting likely matters to you as well though of course we do not require that!
One question students, parents and others involved in making decisions about college might ask would be this: what message are you getting from the set of requirements placed in front of you when you go to apply. Some are out of the direct control of colleges (if you want financial aid, for example, the FAFSA is a must), but what we ask of you is also important to understand.
Test optional does not mean we do not care. (Despite the headline here, the rationale for test optional is not about whether we care or not that your scores are low. And yes, you should know the test policy of any places you are considering.) What does being test optional mean, then? It means we care to get to know you well. It means we know that not all applicants are alike. In this way, Shimer is like — and unlike — many other colleges. Locally, alongside Shimer as an early adopter of this approach, you can find other Illinois examples on this list such as DePaul, Wheaton College and Illinois College. And, you will find that the national news is reporting new adopters of the test optional approach — do not forget those colleges and universities that took this road some time ago.
As you decide where to apply — think through what the schools ask of you and consider — are you a person best represented by dots on scantron-like forms — or by essays and conversations and letters from people who know you well?