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US universities often mandate tests as part of the application process. However, testing policies vary across universities, and, in recent years, many US universities have discontinued the requirement for admissions tests entirely. How do applicants to US universities know which tests to take? This article provides a roadmap to navigate US universities’ testing policies.
Test scores not the only criteria for admission
In the United States, admissions tests do not function as entrance exams in the same way as in India, and there is no universal minimum score required across all US universities. Furthermore, tests are not the only criteria considered when determining whether to admit applicants. The US admissions process is typically ‘holistic’. This means that test scores are one of several components of the admissions decision, considered alongside other elements such as school or college grades, resumes, essays, extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation.
Two major tests key to admissions in US universities
In general, there are two types of tests: those that test students’ academic potential and those that test English proficiency. On the academic side, applicants for undergraduate programmes may be required to take the SAT or ACT test. The SAT test is more popular among Indian students, though US universities usually accept both. The SAT tests maths and english, while the ACT has an additional science component.
Many applicants to undergraduate programmes also take advanced placement or AP exams to enhance their application profile. AP exam results influence course placement at the university after admission, as opposed to admissions decisions. When applying to US schools, be aware that university policies differ regarding which AP subjects receive credit, what score must be achieved, and how many credits will be given.
US university tests for graduate applicants
If you are a graduate applicant, the Graduate Record Exams (GRE) is often required. While the GRE is used for many STEM fields, it may not be required in fields like art and design, writing, or film. Though many business and law programs now accept the GRE as well, professional graduate programs sometimes require specialized tests. For example, if you are applying for business programs, the GMAT may be required. The Law School Admission Test ( LSAT) is an exam required for the JD program in law, and the MCAT is required for admission to medical school.
Deborah Rosario |
Duolingo a new favourite among universities
For language tests, most international applicants to U.S. universities are required to take an English proficiency test. Some universities may waive the test requirement if the applicant has received English education for a certain number of years, but such exceptions are rare. TOEFL and IELTS are the most widely accepted English tests, and the PTE is also frequently accepted. Some universities have also started accepting Duolingo, an hour-long English test that can be taken from home, due to its accessibility.
New policies in place for universities
In the last two years, many universities have rescinded policies requiring academic tests, and three types of testing policies have emerged.
In the first case, the academic test is mandatory, and the applicant must submit the test results to be considered for admission. In the second case, universities have a test-optional policy, meaning applicants can choose whether or not to submit the test. This option creates flexibility for students who do not test well or are unable to take tests. Not submitting the test isn’t a disadvantage. Universities will then examine the other components of your application to gauge your strengths and qualifications. However, if you have taken the test and scored well, you can include the results to supplement your application.
Salil Gupta, Chief Advisor for South Asia at the University of Arizona, said that for graduate applicants, sending in test scores for a university with a test-optional policy can help students create stronger overall profiles and give the admissions coordinator a better grasp of their linguistic and quantitative skills. “When tests are not submitted at the University of Arizona, undergraduate admissions are based on academic scores and letters of recommendation,” he said.
According to Gupta, graduate programmes look for a strong profile, which is based on a combination of the GPA, work experience, publications, GMAT/GRE, statement of purpose, recommendations, etc.” In the case of test-optional universities, while the test is not required for admission, it may be helpful with scholarship decisions or course placement at the university.
The third policy that universities follow is a test-blind policy. Even if students submit a test score, the university will not consider it. The website maintains a record of universities that are test-optional or test-blind at the undergraduate level.
Clearly, US universities espouse several different testing policies. When selecting tests, the best practice is to first shortlist the universities in which you have an interest. Next, verify testing requirements on their official websites. Finally, select your tests according to what is universally accepted by the schools you have shortlisted. If choices between tests remain, you can then compare test formats. Most testing organisations provide preparation materials, sample questions, and even sample exams on their websites. By exploring these and taking a practice test, you can select the test that plays to your strengths.
Students select tests for a variety of reasons. Aniket Shendre, who is currently applying for a Master of Science in Computer Science, chose to take the GRE and submit it to test-optional universities because he felt that “the overall test judges the aptitude skills very well and I thought a good score would help my profile.” Tashna Nair, a current student pursuing a Master of Arts in Television, Radio, and Film at the University of Syracuse, chose the TOEFL because she “liked the format of the test and the way the sections were scored.”
Students with disabilities can also take these tests after requesting disability accommodations. Details on disability information related to the SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT tests can be found at
For more information, please visit the EducationUSA website (), and for individual questions about direct counseling with an EducationUSA adviser, please write to USEducationQueries@state.gov
The author is currently an EducationUSA Adviser at USIEF Mumbai.
(This article marks a year of association between the US Consulate, Mumbai, and FPJ, in informing, advising, and guiding Indian students who wish to study in the US. FPJ appreciates valuable inputs for students' from EducationUSA and the Consulate.)
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