What Test-Optional Means for College Admissions

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Over 1,000 public and private colleges and universities across the U.S. no longer require standardized SAT or ACT test scores. These test-optional institutions find that letting go of these requirements results in greater diversity. But do students really benefit from the option? And does it make more sense to skip the tests or submit them with your application? It depends—read on and find out.



The No-Test Option Is Not New

Test-optional colleges have been around since Bowdoin College dropped the requirement in 1969. Bates College joined the ranks in 1984, and the number has swelled over the past decade. Since 2014, several highly selective colleges including Wesleyan, Bryn Mawr, and George Washington University have gone test-optional.


Many schools call themselves test-optional, but some, especially selective schools, are test-flexible. They don’t require SAT or ACT scores, but might require AP or IB exam results. Some ask students to sit for single-subject tests, or require extra essays or additional letters of recommendation.


Test-flexible schools may request portfolios of written, artistic, or scientific work. They might let you skip tests only if you have a high GPA or class ranking. Some let arts or humanities students forgo tests, but do require them of potential STEM majors.


Tests provide an easily comparable metric with which to assess students. Losing that data means test-optional schools must look more closely at everything else you submit. They appreciate quantifiable data. Colleges take a risk on every student they admit, so they prefer students who provide more evidence of performance, achievements, and likely future success.


To make  yourself look like less of an academic risk to the institution, include as much information showing statistical and other hard evidence of academic and extracurricular success as possible. This allows colleges to compare you to other students more easily.



Many Test-Optional Schools Are Selective

The no-test option isn’t limited to less-selective schools. A number of highly selective schools allow applicants to skip standardized tests.


FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, supports de-emphasizing admissions test scores. They report that more than 300 of the over 1,000 four-year U.S. institutions in their database rank in the top tiers of their respective categories. Test-optional colleges and universities can be found in 49 states, D.C. and most U.S. possessions.


If you’re considering the no-test option, find out whether it’s actually test-flexible. Schedule necessary supplementary tests early. Rules change frequently, so don’t rely on last year’s policy. Confirm policies regarding test requirements regularly.



How Might Not Submitting Test Scores Benefit You?

Perhaps your test scores are lackluster. Are you an otherwise compelling candidate? Do you have excellent grades, strong skills, impressive extracurricular activities? Do you show athletic prowess or leadership potential? You may stand out as a desirable candidate likely to excel in college even without test scores.


Some people with demonstrated ability do not score as well on tests than expected. Are you among them? If you choose not to submit test scores, you need an otherwise strong presentation. You may be more likely to gain admission at a test-optional college without test scores than with them—but there’s no guarantee.


The no-test option works for many. Student diversity rises significantly at institutions using it. This is especially true when colleges provide strong financial aid packages to non-submitting students.

Defining Access: How Test-Optional Works, published in April 2018, is a major study analyzing the records of nearly a million students at 29 institutions. It shows that test-optional colleges achieve much greater diversity when they provide a no-SAT/ACT option and back it up with sufficient financial aid.


The study also reports that students admitted without tests tend to have slightly lower GPAs in their first two years at college. (Detailed results and methodologies are explained in the study.) However, non-submitters’ GPAs tend to rise over time, and they have very similar graduation rates to submitters. Indeed, they are actually slightly more likely to graduate than students with less financial need.


According to Defining Access, standardized tests tend to favor white, male students from affluent families—students who have traditionally had greatest access to top colleges. Women, immigrants, students of color, people with disabilities, and first-generation students tend to do less well on standardized tests. Furthermore, the study states that SAT and ACT scores are less accurate predictors of college success than high school GPAs, especially for students who are not white, male, or affluent.


Students who choose the test-optional path feel they have the ability to do well at college, but believe this does not show in their test scores. They are often right. Of the nearly one million U.S. students in Defining Access, applicants admitted without test scores were shown to graduate at equal or higher rates than those who submitted SAT or ACT scores.

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How Colleges Benefit

Colleges benefit in another major way from a test-optional system. When they admit students without considering test scores, scores aren’t averaged in with other students who did submit them. Those who don’t submit tend to have scores from 100 to 150 points lower than test-submitters. So, unreported, uncounted scores make schools average test scores look higher than they are.


Artificially high averages make schools look more selective. This improves rankings, making it easier for them to attract top students and faculty and justify higher tuition fees. They also get significantly more applications. This increases visibility and their pools of potential students, rendering them more desirable and appealing.



Risks and Drawbacks for Students

Without comparable metrics, colleges are wary of offering their best aid packages to students without test scores. Some won’t offer merit-based financial aid to non-submitters; they reserve their largest aid packages for students who submit scores. Hofstra University, for example, considers all students for merit-based awards. However, only students who submit test scores are eligible for Hofstra’s largest monetary scholarship awards.


Going without test data is perceived as a riskier choice. As a result, those do not submit test results sometimes gain admission more easily, but may attend because of insufficient financial assistance.


What if your family has the financial means for college but you have uninspiring standardized test scores? If you have a strong GPA and are otherwise promising, you may be more likely to gain admission by going test-optional. Your greater-than-average financial resources may eliminate the need for financial aid. If you can afford to forgo assistance, the no-test option may be good for you.  


Even with generous financial backing, if the rest of your application presentation isn’t compelling, going test-free puts you at a disadvantage. Non-submitters have lower acceptance rates than those who submit test scores. Colleges favor those who supply more data. The more you convince colleges of your ability to thrive, the better your chances are.


Your high school transcript carries more weight than normal with admissions officers when you don’t submit test scores. If you go to an accredited public or private school, admissions officers will know how to assess the content and difficulty of your classes by viewing your transcript.


Were you educated outside the U.S., or homeschooled? It may be harder for admissions officers to assess you in comparison to your peers. You could be at a disadvantage if your application relies heavily on your high school GPA. Submitting standardized test scores may be the only way to provide the kind of comparable hard data that admissions officers seek.



Deciding Which Road to Take

Before you decide on the test-optional route, ask yourself a few questions:


Do you stand out from other students based on non-standardized-test measures?


Does your family have financial resources to help if you get minimal-to-moderate financial aid?


Are you assuming that no-test schools are less selective? Many are more selective. They look more carefully at your application package.


Are you planning on majoring in a STEM field? Some test-flexible colleges require test results for STEM majors. Even when not required, colleges may judge STEM-oriented students without tests more severely. (Interestingly, Defining Access shows only a small difference between the GPAs of STEM and non-STEM majors based on test-score submissions.)



What Should You Do?


Maybe you’re a good student but test poorly. You think you might choose the test-optional road. If so, make yourself as attractive to colleges as possible. Choose appealing long-term extracurriculars. Improve your weaknesses. Craft impressive admissions essays.


You might also consider taking an SAT prep class or ACT prep class to improve your score. There are many free and paid options to suit all budgets and needs. After honing in on your test prep strategy, you may find that you’ll want to submit your improved score.


Many colleges recognize the benefits of a test-optional system. They’ve seen their diversity improve and know that non-submitters tend to do as well as submitters. Still, institutional preferences for candidates supplying more data put non-submitters at a disadvantage.


However, if your test results are significantly lower than expected for someone with your GPA and other measures of success, and if you come from a traditionally underserved population, the no-test option is worth consideration.


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To learn more about ways to make your college application package shine, with or without standardized test scores, check out these tips from the CollegeVine blog:


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Laura Grey
Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
Laura Grey is an alumna of Mills College and the mother of a Simmons College graduate. Laura’s liberal arts education has served her well over the course of her writing and editing career, and she’s a big supporter of the women’s college experience. She enjoys writing film and music reviews, creating art, studying history and incorporating Godzilla figurines into her holiday decorating.