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Does Test-Optional Really Mean Optional?

What’s Covered:

 

Until 2020, the SAT and ACT were foundational pieces of the college process. Then, during the 2020-2021 application cycle, the pandemic made gathering in testing centers impossible, so just about every college implemented a test-optional policy. Many of those policies were intended to be temporary, but even though the pandemic has now ended, most schools have extended their test-optional policies through at least the 2023-2024 cycle. 

 

However, since taking the SAT/ACT is now possible again, and since test-optional policies being this widespread is still such a new development, you may be asking yourself: Are colleges being fully honest about the word “optional”? The short answer is… sort of.

 

In this post, we’ll provide a comprehensive overview of test-optional policies, so that you can make the most informed decision possible about whether applying to college without a standardized test score is truly right for you.

 

How Test-Optional Policies Have Impacted College Admissions

 

Why Many Schools Have Chosen to Stay Test-Optional

 

The advantages of test-optional policies for students are clear, but what about from a college’s perspective? Admissions teams have important decisions to make about tens of thousands of applicants, and standardized test scores are a data point they have relied on for decades. So, why have so many schools decided to keep SAT/ACT scores optional even in the wake of the pandemic?

 

For one thing, what schools say publicly is true: for some students, a standardized test score is genuinely not the best reflection of their academic potential. Besides the pandemic, 2020 saw a huge increase in the number of conversations happening about racial justice, and schools have become more aware that there are many reasons one student may score higher on the SAT/ACT than another that have much more to do with circumstances than ability.

 

Ultimately, schools want your application to accurately reflect who you are as a student and a person, so that they can put together a student body that represents their values as an institution. Admissions officers recognize that for some applicants, a standardized test score is simply not a useful metric for determining whether or not the student is a good fit for the school.

 

Additionally, test-optional policies have some more tangible, direct benefits for colleges. Schools care about their reputations, which are based in part on the statistics of their incoming classes, including SAT/ACT scores. Because those scores are no longer required, applicants are likely only submitting them if they did exceptionally well, which boosts admissions statistics.

 

Odds of Acceptance With and Without a Test Score

 

The first thing to underscore is that schools are being honest when they say they won’t formally penalize you for not submitting a test score. Everyone knows they set the rules, so they have no reason to deceive you about which factors they’re considering—after all, plenty of schools have gone back to requiring SAT/ACT scores. But there are some qualifications that need to be noted.

 

First, there’s the simple fact that if you don’t submit a standardized test score, schools will have one fewer data point on you compared to many other applicants. College applications already limit the amount of information they allow you to share about yourself, and by not submitting an SAT/ACT score, you’re voluntarily limiting yourself even further.

 

Additionally, this isn’t just any old data point you’re leaving out: it’s one that, until just a few years ago, was a fundamental part of college admissions. Even if admissions officers aren’t doing it consciously, they’re human, and the absence of a score may make them instinctively think that you didn’t submit one because you scored poorly.

 

Data collection on the concrete impact of applying test-optional on your chances of acceptance is still ongoing. However, initial findings showed that students at or above the 25th percentile of scores for accepted students at a particular test-optional school were twice as likely to be accepted if they submitted their score. For perhaps even more compelling proof of the continued relevance of standardized tests, even students below the 25th percentile were still more likely to get in if they included their scores in their application.

 

Reality is, there’s no way around the fact that an excellent SAT/ACT score is a nice gold star to have on your application. Compare it to a student who spent one summer working for the United Nations. It’s not that other applicants are being punished for not reaching such heights in their activities—it’s that this applicant has a genuinely exceptional achievement which says a great deal about their potential to succeed in college.

 

All of these considerations become even more important at highly selective schools, where admissions is already so competitive that applicants are often separated by only the finest of lines. If you’re applying to one of these schools, maximizing your chances of admission probably means just treating the SAT/ACT as once again required, even if the school is officially test-optional.

 

The Impact of Applying Test-Optional on Your Overall Profile

 

Remember, most colleges utilize holistic admissions processes, which means that not submitting a standardized test score will affect how they evaluate your application as a whole.

 

For example, if you have a lackluster GPA or aren’t particularly involved in extracurricular activities, not submitting a test score could call more attention to those elements of your application. On the flip side, that same student submitting a competitive test score could show colleges that they have potential, but just haven’t had the opportunity to realize it yet.

 

However, holistic admissions goes both ways: schools will look at your lack of a test score within the broader context of your life circumstances. So, if you come from a background that hasn’t given you access to many test-prep resources, or that would make even the logistics of taking the SAT/ACT difficult (working a part-time job on the weekends to help financially support your family, for example), not submitting a test score probably won’t work against you. 

 

You could even go into more detail about your inability to prepare sufficiently, or take the test at all, in the “Additional Information” section of the Common App, if you feel that context is necessary in order for admissions officers to fully understand who you are as an applicant. That added insight can show self-awareness and maturity, two qualities which admissions officers view incredibly favorably.

 

Test-Optional vs. Test-Recommended vs. Test-Blind

 

While you’ve obviously heard of test-optional policies, and of schools like MIT and Georgetown that have gone back to requiring standardized tests, there are some colleges that don’t fall perfectly into either of those buckets.

 

For example, Duke is officially test-optional, but does recommend that applicants take the SAT or ACT. That’s different from being fully test-optional—when something is recommended in college admissions, you should think of it as being required, especially at a school as selective as Duke. Remember, you’re competing against tens of thousands of other applicants, so if the school is saying they’d ideally like to have a particular piece of information from you, you’d be putting yourself at a disadvantage by not giving it to them.

 

That being said, as noted above, if you have a legitimately good reason for not being able to take/submit the SAT or ACT, you’re the kind of student Duke had in mind when deciding to recommend, rather than require, standardized tests. However, if you are applying without a test score to a school that recommends one, you should be sure to explain why you aren’t submitting a score in the “Additional Information” section, to be completely transparent about your decision and avoid any misunderstanding.

 

On the other hand, there are also test-blind schools, which will not consider your test scores even if you submit them. Make sure you know if any of your schools are test-blind, as there’s a fee for submitting your score report, and you don’t want to accidentally waste money by sending it to a school that actively doesn’t want it. While there aren’t many test-blind schools, the list does include renowned institutions like Caltech and the entire UC system, so keep an eye out.

 

Overall, you should be sure to check the admissions website of each school you’re applying to, to be sure you’ve fully understood their testing policy. If you’re confused about anything, reach out to an admissions officer—they’re there to answer your questions! Your high school guidance counselor may also have useful tips about the nuances of particular schools’ policies. The expansion of test-optional policies may be a recent development, but there are still plenty of resources out there to help you determine whether submitting your score to a given school is the right move for you.

 

Should I Still Take the SAT/ACT?

 

Yes, At Least Once

 

Unless all the schools on your list are test-blind (if you’re applying to only UCs, for example), you should still take one of the tests at least once. As explained above, all else being equal, it’s better to apply with a score than without one, so you should at least feel out one of the tests—you may even end up doing significantly better than you expected!

 

Plus, even if your score isn’t anything exceptional, it may still fall within the middle 50% of scores for accepted students at some of your schools. What’s considered a “good” score varies widely from school to school, and remember, you can send your score to some colleges and not others.

 

Test-Optional Policies and SAT/ACT Retakes

 

Keep in mind that you should also factor test-optional policies into your decision about whether or not to retake the SAT/ACT. For example, if you have one or two reach schools where your score is way below the middle 50%, but it’s within that target range at schools you’re more likely to get into, your best bet may be just applying test-optional at the reach schools.

 

Remember, trying to significantly boost your score requires a lot of study time, and since you’re already unlikely to be accepted at these schools, that time will likely be better spent maximizing your chances of acceptance at your other schools by doing well on your school assignments, investing in your extracurriculars, and polishing your college essays.

 

When Does It Make Sense to Spend a Lot of Time Studying for the SAT/ACT?

 

For some students, investing heavy time and energy into studying for an SAT/ACT retake could be a wise decision. If, for example, your GPA is below the middle 50% at most of your schools, a strong test score could help boost your academic profile. 

 

Ultimately, the best testing strategy for you is context-dependent. If you’re unsure about whether retaking the SAT/ACT would be a good move for you, check out CollegeVine’s free chancing engine, which factors in every element of your profile, including grades, course rigor, extracurriculars, and, yes, test scores, to give you personalized odds of acceptance at each of your schools. You can also see how changes to your profile, like a higher test score, would impact your odds.

 

If I Do Apply Test-Optional, How Can I Still Make My Application as Strong as Possible?

 

If you don’t submit a test score, your GPA and course rigor will be scrutinized more closely, since those will be the only indicators of your readiness for college-level work. Of course, those aren’t things you can just quickly brush up before submitting your application. But if you decide early enough that you are for sure not submitting a test score, think hard about trying to boost your GPA, or enrolling in more challenging classes senior year than you were planning on, to make sure your academic preparation comes across to admissions officers.

 

The other key is to ensure your essays and activities list are as strong as they can possibly be, as the time admissions officers would be spending evaluating your test score is now going to be reallocated to those areas. To make sure your writing is as polished as possible, check out CollegeVine’s free Peer Essay Review tool, where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. ‌ 

 

If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!


Short Bio
Adrian is a current senior at Dartmouth College, originally from Seattle, WA. At Dartmouth, she studies philosophy and neuroscience, and has been involved with research in the philosophy department, sexual assault prevention on campus, and mentorship programs for first year students. She spent her junior fall studying abroad at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.