College Admissions- Middle 50%, Test Optional (… and Country Music?)

In the last week, I’ve made two 5-hour drives. One from Baltimore, MD to Durham, NC. And then a few days later from Charleston, SC to middle Georgia. On these treks, I was thinking about how infrequently I get long stretches of time alone.

Early on in my time at Tech, however, that was the norm. I traveled regularly from Atlanta to South Georgia, and had countless Friday afternoon returns of 3, 4, or even 5 hours to listen to audiobooks, sports radio, call friends, or just to think. I’m also a country music fan, and frankly it just sounds better to me driving alone on open stretches of road.

Literally, as I was thinking this, Tim McGraw’s song, “Back When” came on. If you are not familiar with these lyrics, here are a few:

We got too complicated
It’s all way over-rated
I like the old and out-dated
Way of life

Back when a hoe was a hoe
Coke was a coke
And crack’s what you were doing
When you were cracking jokes
Back when a screw was a screw
The wind was all that blew
And when you said I’m down with that
Well it meant you had the flu
I miss back when

Feel free to @ me if you are not a country fan; unimpressed with Tim McGraw’s acting skills; or offended by the lyrics. Just keep reading.

My point is that when it comes to college admission, many of the words we used to use, and many of the metrics that seemed helpful or instructive, have shifted dramatically. Let’s look at a few examples and figure out what the changes mean for you.

Back When

Middle 50% ranges- There was a time when publishing the middle 50% GPA and SAT/ACT range of admitted students was extremely helpful. GPAs were more uniform and test scores were required of all applicants. If a student had both a GPA and a test score that fell in the bottom quartile, it was not necessarily a NO for admission, but it was a very instructive reality check on likelihood. Similarly, if a student was scoring in the top quartile of the admitted range, while it was not a guarantee of admission for the most highly selective schools, for the vast majority of colleges, it was a great guidance point.

Over time, however, as high schools created more and more GPA ranges, i.e. 4.0, 5.0, 13.0, weighted, unweighted, paragraphs vs. numbers, etc., colleges became less capable of publishing middle 50% GPA ranges. At Tech, we gave up on these pre-pandemic, and simply started saying “Admitted students are generally earning top grades in the most difficult courses in their high school.” Even for schools who have continued to create middle 50’s on grades, you need an old-school cereal box decoder to figure out how they re-calculate, which courses they include, and how that number translates to your high school context.

This is exacerbated for test scores due to the test optional trend. At this point, approximately 80% of four-year colleges in America are test optional. Because not all students submit scores, and disproportionately students with higher scores submit, middle 50s are inflated and less indicative of the academic profile for admitted students.

In an ideal world, colleges would all publish the number and percentage of their applicants who submit scores, the admit rates for students who submit vs. don’t submit, the academic profile of those who submit vs. those who do not, and all of that again for their actual enrolling class. Spoiler alert: This is not an ideal world.

What does this mean for you?  

If you are a junior searching for colleges, keep an eyebrow raised when colleges throw out averages and numerical ranges of any kind.

Someone tells you their middle 50% is between a 1340-1420, you should be asking where that number comes from. Is that applicants, admitted, enrolling? Were those the scores received and used during the decision process, or is that cumulative of all admits who ultimately sent scores?

The same holds true when they tell you their faculty: ratio, their graduation rates, retention rates, number of benches or deer or squirrels on campus. How are you arriving at those numbers? What is really included and where are the nuances?

Back When

Prior to the pandemic, the colleges who were test optional had arrived at that decision based on their mission, their data, and their intentionally chosen policy. They legitimately wanted to give students the option to send scores or apply absent of that component. In other words, optional really means optional.

Since the pandemic, the number of colleges who have gone test optional has escalated rapidly. As a high school counselor friend of mine put it recently, “many of these schools made the decision to go optional under duress.”

What does this mean for you?  

If you are applying to a college that is test-optional, I encourage you to do your homework on that college. I’ve heard it said many times in the last few years that “Optional means optional.” But the truth is that it’s not that simple. As Tim McGraw sings, “We got too complicated/ It’s all way over-rated.”

Some schools “prefer” you send scores, even if they are optional publicly. Some schools hinge money to test scores, or expect scores from certain communities or in certain majors.

I am not anti-test optional. I am just pro transparency. Colleges need to publish better data in this space and be very clear about how they arrived at their policies.

Until that happens, TALK to your school counselor about what trends they are seeing from college to college. If your school is using Scoir, Naviance, Maia Learning, or another data aggregating system, have them help you translate patterns.

ASK the schools you are applying to for an answer to the optional question beyond “optional means optional.” What does it mean for your major? What does it mean for students from your school, city, state? Is their data broken down by TSO vs. Non-TSO by EA, ED, RD, in-state vs. out of state, etc.

At the end of the day, as a college applicant, your job is to act like a college student. Good college students ask questions. Good college students do their research.  Good college students do their homework. You’re headed to college, so act like a college student. While many words, numbers, and policies have changed, that has not.

Author: Rick Clark

Rick Clark is the Executive Director of Strategic Student Access at Georgia Tech. He has served on a number of national advisory and governing boards at the state, regional, and national level. Rick travels annually to U.S. embassies through the Department of State to discuss the admission process and landscape of higher education. He is the co-author of the book The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together, and a companion workbook published under the same title. A native of Atlanta, he earned a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a M.Ed. from Georgia State University. Prior to coming to Tech, Rick was on the admissions staff at Georgia State, The McCallie School and Wake Forest University. @clark2college