Anna Ravenelle 6 min read 12th Grade, Standardized Tests

Everything You need to Know about Test-Optional Schools

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Standardized tests are often considered the golden number for college admissions. They can help you figure out if you’re a good academic fit for a school before applying, and help a school understand how your profile stacks up against others. So, what happens when you’re starting to look at colleges, and you click onto a school that says they don’t require standardized test scores?

 

These schools are what we call test-optional. Read on to learn more about what that means for your application. 

 

What Does “Test-Optional” Mean?

 

Test-optional schools are exactly what they sound like—their applications for admission do not require standardized SAT or ACT scores. Submitting them for your application is optional.

 

There are also test-flexible schools. This means that while an SAT or ACT score might not be required, they would like to see some standardized test score from you, like an AP or IB exam, or an SAT subject test. 

 

Prior to COVID-19, more than 1,000 colleges and universities in the US, both public and private, considered themselves test-optional or test-flexible. While it was not a new phenomenon—Bowdoin first went test-optional in 1969—it had become increasingly common to see a school dropping these requirements in favor of weighing other aspects of the application more heavily. Because of the pandemic, SAT and ACT test dates were canceled or postponed, which prompted most colleges to become test-optional for at least the 2020–2021 academic year.

 

How do Test-Optional Policies Impact College Admissions?

 

Many schools cite a desire to remove barriers to admission and increase diversity in their applicant pool when explaining their decision to become test-optional or test-flexible. Standardized tests often favor wealthy students over their low-income counterparts. Removing the test as a requirement can open doors to students without the resources to pay for the test itself, let alone prep classes or additional sittings. (Not to mention larger systemic barriers that affect low-income students in ways wealthy students aren’t, such as lack of knowledge about the college admissions process). Removing this barrier can, in theory, start to close that gap by increasing access to higher education for these disadvantaged students.

 

However, some schools have been accused of going test-optional or flexible to increase their applicant pools and thus decrease their acceptance rate, leading to a higher ranking in college lists. Because removing the test score requirement can encourage many students to apply who might not have otherwise, test-optional schools can see a huge increase in the number of applicants who are not at the academic level the school typically admits. (The same thing happens, to a lesser degree, when colleges send out pamphlets and brochures to entice students they’re unlikely to admit into applying.) This means that they have a much larger applicant pool to choose from, but will still admit the same amount of students. Keep in mind they also admit the same level of students—whether or not there is a test score on file, the applications committee keeps the same standards for every applicant. Without a test score, every other part of the application is looked at more closely.

 

Should You Submit Your SAT/ACT Scores to Test-Optional Schools?

 

It can be tempting to unilaterally decide not to send your test scores to the test-optional schools you’re applying to, but before you make any decisions, you should first think about why you don’t want to submit your test scores. Even if a school has gone test-optional or flexible, that doesn’t mean they have relaxed their other standards. In fact, they’ll be looking at other parts of your application more closely because they have less information about you to decide admission based on.

 

This means that whether you should submit your scores to a test-optional school will vary from school to school. Typically, if you have a test score in the 50th percentile or higher than the school’s average admitted student, you should submit your score.

 

If your scores are below that 50th percentile, but you have an otherwise stellar application package, you might consider not submitting them. You won’t be penalized for not submitting a test score, but a test-optional school will still consider a lower score if submitted. If your test score is at a significantly lower level than the rest of your application, it could bring your application as a whole down. When applying to a school with average test scores above your own, be honest with yourself about whether you are a good academic fit. *We’ve updated these guidelines for COVID-19 below. Please keep reading for COVID-specific advice.

 

If test-taking has always been a weak spot but you shine in the classroom and in activities, or if you are from an underserved population, then going test-optional can be a great way to increase your application options. But if your test scores are on par with the rest of your academics, you are better off submitting them. The more information you are able to supply about yourself, the more data the admissions committee can use to make their decisions. Also keep in mind that some scholarships and financial aid packages are determined by your standardized test scores, so applying without them might jeopardize your eligibility.

 

Whom Do Test-Optional Policies Benefit?

 

As you might imagine, test-optional policies benefit those with weaker test scores. However, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. 

 

If the rest of your profile is weak in comparison to accepted students’ profiles at the school in question, then not submitting scores won’t work to your advantage. You need to have strong grades and some kind of hook, such as an exceptional talent. For instance, recruited athletes will likely benefit from test-optional policies.

 

Underrepresented minorities, first-generation students, and lower-income students are well-positioned to benefit from test-optional policies as well, since they often experience more barriers to testing.

 

How COVID-19 Affects Test-Optional Policies

Before we dive in, you may want to check out this complete guide to test-optional colleges in 2020-2021. You’ll get expert tips from one of our CollegeVine co-founders!

 

 

As we’ve discussed, COVID-19 has changed the college admissions game. Given the fact that many test dates have been postponed or cancelled altogether, the majority of institutions, including most top-tier schools, are test-optional as of now. 

 

If you have had the opportunity to take the SAT and/or ACT, we recommend submitting SAT scores if they fall within 60 points of the 25th percentile of accepted students. For ACT scores, we recommend submitting if they fall within three points of the 25th percentile. 

 

That’s because scores are likely to be lower for the upcoming admissions cycle, largely because students who were able to take the tests weren’t able to improve their scores by taking them multiple times.

 

Top Test-Optional Schools

 

We’ve broken down some of the top test-optional and test-flexible schools for you below (these reflect pre-COVID policies). Please note that policies for international or home-schooled applicants, or applicants to specific programs or majors may be different. 

 

Test-flexible schools are noted with an *.

 

Top Test-Optional and Test-Flexible National Universities

School Name Location U.S. News Ranking Acceptance Rate
University of Chicago IL 6 7%
Wake Forest University NC 27 29%
New York University* NY 29 20%
University of Rochester NY 29 29%
Brandeis University MA 40 31%
University of Texas – Austin* TX 48 40%
Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) MA 64 48%
George Washington University DC 70 40%
Texas A&M* TX 70 67%
American University DC 77 26%
Marquette University 84 84%
Clark University MA 91 55%
University of Delaware DE 91 70%
Drexel University* PA 97 75%
University of Denver CO 97 54%
University of San Francisco CA 97 71%

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Top Test-Optional and Test-Flexible Liberal Arts Colleges

School Name Location U.S. News Ranking Acceptance Rate
Bowdoin College ME 6 10%
Middlebury College* VT 7 17%
Colby College ME 11 13%
Smith College MA 11 31%
Hamilton College* NY 11 21%
Wesleyan University CT 17 17%
Bates College ME 21 18%
Bryn Mawr College PA 27 40%
College of the Holy Cross MA 27 39%
Colorado College CO 27 15%
Mount Holyoke College MA 32 52%
Bucknell University PA 35 30%
Pitzer College CA 35 13%
Franklin and Marshall College PA 38 36%
Skidmore College NY 39 29%
Denison University OH 43 44%
Sewanee – University of the South TN 43 44%
Union College NY 43 37%
Connecticut College CT 46 35%
DePauw University IN 46 65%
Dickinson College PA 46 43%
Furman University SC 46 68%
Trinity College CT 46 34%
Whitman College WA 46 51%
Gettysburg College PA 46 43%
Agnes Scott College GA 58 65%
Lawrence University WI 58 63%
St. Lawrence University NY 58 43%
Bard College NY 62 56%
St. John’s College MD 64 53%
Knox College IL 66 65%
Cornell College IA 68 71%
Sarah Lawrence College NY 68 52%
Willamette University OR 68 89%
Hobart and WIlliam Smith Colleges NY 72 57%
Kalamazoo College MI 72 66%
Lewis & Clark OR 72 55%
Muhlenberg College PA 72 48%
St. John’s College NM 72 63%
Transylvania University KY 72 95%
Wofford College SC 72 70%
Earlham College IN 80 58%
Allegheny College PA 82 68%
Beloit College WI 82 70%
College of the Atlantic ME 82 65%
Juniata College PA 82 75%
Ursinus College PA 82 82%
Wheaton College MA 82 79%
Bennington College VT 89 60%
Gustavus Adolphus MN 89 65%
University of Puget Sound WA 89 79%
Augustana College IL 92 52%
Hendrix College AR 92 77%
Lake Forest College IL 92 57%
Ohio Wesleyan University OH 92 72%
Southwestern University TX 92 45%
Washington & Jefferson College PA 92 47%

 

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Anna Ravenelle
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Anna Ravenelle is a graduate of Cornell University, where she studied English with a concentration in Creative Writing. After spending two application cycles in the CollegeVine applications division, she now uses her admissions experience to help a greater number of students. She resides in New York but her heart has never left New Hampshire, where she grew up.