Pros and Cons of Applying Test-Optional
- Pros of Applying Test-Optional
- Cons of Applying Test-Optional
- Should I Apply Test-Optional Or Not?
- How to Decide Whether Applying Test-Optional is Right for You
Test-optional college admissions are nothing new; Bowdoin College is credited with pioneering them more in 1969—more than five decades ago! That said, in recent years, test-optional admissions policies have become increasingly commonplace. Given the newness of test-optional admissions at many institutions, college-bound students are often left to wonder whether or not to submit their standardized test scores.
No two applicants are the same and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to whether or not you should apply test-optional; however, there are some general guidelines that can help make the decision-making process easier.
Pros of Applying Test-Optional
Without test scores, colleges must make a more comprehensive evaluation of you as a candidate. Test-optional admissions compels admissions offices to more closely examine other aspects of your application, including areas like grades, course rigor, essays, extracurricular activities, personal achievements, and recommendation letters.
Ultimately, colleges consider you as a whole person (including your potential, interests, strengths, and weaknesses), rather than merely a collection of numbers (your GPA, class rank, and test scores).
A more holistic evaluation is particularly beneficial if you have a strong application, but mediocre or poor test scores. In these cases, a poor test score can detract from your accomplishments and achievements. It can also lead admissions committees to question your ability to succeed in college, even if you’ve excelled in numerous areas outside of standardized tests.
Spotlight a Specific Area
The more holistic admissions process resulting from test-optional policies is beneficial if you’re particularly strong in a specific area but noticeably weak in other areas. More holistic admissions allow you to better emphasize your unique talent and skills—bolstering your odds of college admission.
For example, if you’re an exceptionally talented writer but struggle with math, test-optional policies allow you to spotlight your talent with attention-grabbing essays, examples of published work, and a great recommendation from your English teacher, while shifting the focus from a standardized test score dragged down by a poor performance on the math section.
Focus on Other Aspects of the Application
From preparation to the tests themselves, standardized exams are time-consuming. Test-optional admissions policies allow you to devote your time to other areas of your college application, like earning higher grades, taking more challenging courses, and pursuing interests outside of the classroom—in other words, all the things colleges are looking for in applicants other than test scores.
If your time has been consumed by projects you’re excited about—like playing in the state band or getting your nonprofit off the ground—test-optional admissions allow you to apply your energy to your passions and interests, rather than merely earning a good exam score.
From buying study guides to purchasing online courses to hiring a tutor, you can spend a small fortune prepping for standardized tests. According to Forbes, more than $1 billion was spent on test prep in 2019. Because of this, test-optional policies can lead to more equitable admissions, as students from families that can afford extensive test prep have an advantage over those who cannot.
Similarly, you may think spending a substantial amount of money to score well on a single test is a poor use of resources. Perhaps you think that money is better spent on something else that will influence college admissions officials—for example, studying abroad, funding a volunteer project, or enrolling in a pre-college summer program.
Cons of Applying Test-Optional
Colleges May Still Consider Test Scores
Just because you’re not required to submit standardized test scores at a school, doesn’t mean that a college doesn’t consider them. In other words, a college may not penalize you for not submitting test scores; however, students who submit scores—especially those with scores within the school’s range—may appear more competitive.
If you’ve performed well on your standardized tests and your score is within the middle 50% range of the school you’re applying to, it’s a smart strategy to include your test scores. Test scores are just one more factor for admissions committees to weigh, and their absence may lead the committees to wonder why you chose not to include them.
More Subjective Evaluation
Considerations in college admissions like standardized test scores, GPA, and class rank are more objective metrics than extracurricular activities, essays, and recommendations. The increased value test-optional admissions places on subjective elements of your application can leave a lot in the hands of someone who may be having a bad day, having trouble focusing, or simply not view things in the same light as you—for example, what you think is an awesome extracurricular, they may find just “meh.”
Once again, if your test scores fall within a school’s middle 50% range, submit them. Let your objective metrics demonstrate your college preparedness and let the subjective aspects of your application complement them.
Test-optional admissions attract more applicants, which means increased competition for coveted spots at schools. For example, when three of Cornell’s colleges adopted test-blind policies in 2020, the number of applications they received jumped from roughly 50,000 to 71,000. Also, because only applicants who’ve scored well on standardized tests generally tend to share their scores, the average test scores at test-optional schools rise.
Submitting a test score—especially one within the middle 50% range of accepted applicants—is an easy way to stand out from a crowded field of applicants, many of whom didn’t include their test scores with their application. This can be a great way to improve your admission odds.
It May Cost You Merit Aid
While many colleges have reduced the value standardized tests have on college admissions, they still play a prominent role in how many colleges award merit aid. By not submitting test scores, you may disqualify yourself from receiving merit aid or limit your opportunity to win a scholarship.
Consider that National Merit Finalists—top scorers on the PSAT/NMSQT—are awarded $2,500 scholarships. Even more interesting are the colleges that provide full-ride and full-tuition scholarships to National Merit Finalists. In a similar way, SAT scores are often used by colleges to determine how merit scholarships will be distributed.
If you’re seeking scholarships and are hopeful of winning financial aid, you’ll want to seriously think about sending in your test scores.
Should I Apply Test-Optional Or Not?
Every student is different, but as a general rule, it’s better to submit test scores than not. This is especially true at highly selective colleges. The more information you provide a school with about you, the better a school can see the complete picture of you as an applicant—from who you are academically to who you are outside of the classroom.
Also, providing test scores eliminates any questions an admissions officer may have—such as why you didn’t submit your test scores—which can only help your chances in the end.
According to CollegeVine’s data on applying test-optional, students who submit scores at or above the 25th percentile are accepted at roughly two times the rate of students who don’t submit scores. Even students below the 25th percentile are more likely to be accepted if they submit their scores. They’re accepted at approximately 1.25 times the rate of students who apply without test scores.
The above data are from the pandemic and may change over time as test-optional admissions continue to become more commonplace, but at the moment students should still think hard about including their test scores with their college application.
How to Decide Whether Applying Test-Optional is Right for You
CollegeVine can help you determine how your test scores will affect your odds of admission at over 1,600 schools nationwide. Our free chancing engine uses metrics like grades, course rigor, extracurriculars, and test scores to estimate your odds of college admissions. You can even use our admissions calculator to see how your chances change depending on whether or not you submit standardized test scores.