The Lowdown on Test-Optional Colleges

The Lowdown on Test-Optional Colleges

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If you follow education in the news, you may remember reading an article (or at least seeing an article title) about colleges implementing test-optional admissions policies or colleges dropping their SAT or ACT writing requirements. These articles are becoming more and more common as colleges across the United States changes their admissions policies to be more inclusive and less based on standardized test scores.

While many schools no longer require the essay portion of SAT or ACT (due to the fact that some low-income students may not apply to schools requiring the essay portion; many school districts and high schools pay for students to take the test during school, but don’t cover the higher price that comes with the essay portion), some schools are moving a step further and going entirely test optional.

What is a test-optional college? What is a test-flexible college?

Test-optional colleges do not require prospective students to submit their SAT or ACT scores as a part of their application materials. At some schools, students may choose to do so if they have scores that they would like admissions representatives to consider. At others, students can submit their scores, but admissions representatives will not factor them into admissions decisions.

Test-flexible colleges work a little bit differently, but policies vary by school. Some test-flexible policies include:

  • Requiring students to submit Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or SAT Subject Test scores instead of SAT or ACT scores
  • Using SAT or ACT scores for placement into different levels of classes
  • Requiring SAT or ACT scores from certain groups of students (international students, out-of-state students)
  • Requiring that prospective students submit writing samples or take college-administered placement tests instead of submitting SAT or ACT scores
  • Requiring SAT or ACT scores for admittance to specific programs
  • Requiring SAT or ACT scores from students who don’t otherwise meet GPA and/or class rank requirements

Your prospective institutions will have their test score policies listed on their websites. Whether or not you decide to submit your SAT or ACT scores may depend on a) the school’s requirements, b) your scores, or c) whether submitting scores can enhance your application. If you’re unclear about any school’s policies, reach out to an admissions representative.

Why are schools adopting test-optional policies?

The motivations behind test-optional and test-flexible policies are twofold.

First, test-optional policies may increase diversity on campus. White and Asian students, for example, tend to perform better on the SAT and the ACT than their black and Hispanic counterparts. Black and Hispanic students, then, may be discouraged from applying to colleges that require high scores (or scores at all), leading to decreased diversity on campus. Furthermore, low-income students (who are more frequently black or Hispanic than white or Asian) may have trouble affording standardized tests, especially if the essay portion is required. Removing test score requirements, then, may up the number of racially diverse applicants that a given college receives.

Second, standardized tests have long been controversial because they aren’t particularly precise. A single student could take the SAT or ACT twice and end up with drastically different scores, but that doesn’t mean that his or her academically ability and ability to analyze and comprehend has changed between sittings. While standardized tests may provide some useful information about a student’s ability to understand questions and come to a correct answer, they don’t tell admissions representatives about less tangible things, like a student’s drive to succeed, the amount of effort they put in, and their academic strengths. Test-optional colleges recognize that “aptitude” may not be the best way to judge a student’s ability to succeed in school.

What am I judged on if I don’t submit my test scores?

If you don’t submit standardized test scores, your application will be judged based upon:

  • Your high school transcripts (your grades, the level of coursework you enrolled in, your performance in advanced classes, and improvement throughout high school)
  • Letters of recommendation submitted by your teachers and/or counselor
  • Your participation in extracurricular activities (being on a sports team, having an after-school or summer job, participating in clubs or organizations, performing community service) and any honors you received
  • Your responses to personal essay and short answer questions
  • Your performance in an interview or audition, if required

Should I take the SAT or ACT anyway?

If you plan on applying to any schools that require you to submit test scores, the answer is yes.

Beyond that, the question becomes “Would it be useful for me to take the SAT or ACT anyway?”

Some test-optional schools will still consider your SAT or ACT scores if you include them as part of your application. If you take the SAT or ACT and your scores come back high or within the range of past admitted students (you can search here, then click “Applying” and “SAT and ACT Scores”), it probably wouldn’t hurt (and might even help) if you submit your scores anyway. If your scores are low, it’s might be best to skip it.

Talk to your high school counselor or an admissions representative if you have any questions.

If I submit my test scores to a test-optional college, can it hurt my application?

It depends on your scores and the policies of the institution. Some test-optional colleges won’t look at applicant’s scores even if they are submitted, in which case submitting your scores won’t affect you either way. Others will consider any scores that are submitted. If your scores are low and there isn’t anything else in your application to set you apart to the admissions committee, submitting your scores could hypothetically hurt your chances of admission.

Will not submitting SAT or ACT scores affect my financial aid package?

Standardized test scores are not required to apply for federal financial aid, so if you are hoping to qualify for federal aid (generally need-based grants, loans, or work-study), you won’t be adversely affected by not having taken the SAT or ACT.

It gets more complicated when you start to think about state, institutional, and private sources of financial aid. Some state programs (which you can typically only apply to if you plan on attending an in-state college) distribute funds to students based on their academics, including both GPA and test scores. Individual schools and private scholarships may also require applicants to submit their SAT or ACT scores.

If you don’t have any scores on file, then, you may not qualify for some sources of aid. If you’re not worried about qualifying for financial aid anywhere except at the federal level, you’ll be fine never sitting for the SAT or ACT. If you’re hoping to fund more of your education with financial aid, though, taking either test—and submitting them as part of your state, institutional, and private aid applications—is in your best interest.

How can I find a test-optional college?

Your college’s application policies should be stated online, but if you’re just beginning your college search and want only to look at test-optional colleges, consider reading through this list of 1000+ colleges that have “de-emphasized the use of standardized tests by making admissions decisions -- without using ACT or SAT scores -- for all or many applicants who recently graduated from U.S. high schools.”

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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