What Is Test Optional? (3 Key Things To Consider)


It’s that time. You’re in high school and you’re starting to think about where you want to attend college. Maybe you even started touring schools or exploring websites of various colleges.

You may have an older sibling and were dragged along college tours. You’ve heard that the college application process can be daunting.

Now you’ve learned that some of the schools in which you’re interested are “Test Optional.” What on earth does that mean? Is that really true?

It seems like that’s great news, right? It’s easier to apply to college now. Well, that depends on who you’re asking. To be sure, you now have another decision to make.

Is a test optional policy a good idea or not? Well, it depends…

In this article, we’ll explore the ins and outs of Test Optional schools. Let’s get started.

What Does Test Optional Mean? 

Let’s look at an example of a Test Optional school. Boston University is Test Optional for first year applicants applying for the fall 2023-spring 2024 school year.

This means that if you want to attend BU, you need to decide if you’d like to submit your ACT or SAT scores.

How do you decide? BU puts it this way,

College Essay Prompts
College Essay Prompts

“When making this decision, we ask students to consider the totality of their academic record, their contributions both in and out of the classroom and to their communities, and whether they feel confident that the sum of these experiences fully reflect their academic ability and potential.”

Boston University

Basically this means that they will look at all of the other factors on your application:

  • GPA
  • class rank (if your school provides one)
  • the rigor of the curriculum
  • extra activities
  • essays
  • volunteer service
college library
If you are applying to a test optional school, your GPA may have more weight than ever before, so hit the library!

Why Do Schools Go Test Optional?

Test Optional policies vary from school to school. In general though, Test Optional schools recognize that often students who come from more affluent communities attain higher test scores.

Research has shown that to be the case.  Students from disadvantaged communities may not have the opportunities that wealthier peers have – tutoring, taking the SAT multiple times, SAT Prep classes, private schools, access to test centers, etc.

Most colleges have made an effort to admit a more diverse student body and in doing so, many have waived the standardized testing requirement.

While many schools were already Test Optional before the pandemic, the vast majority of schools became Test Optional, at least temporarily, during the pandemic. It’s a new era in college admissions!

student computer presentation
During the pandemic, classes went virtual and standardized tests were delayed (it was difficult to find a place to take the SAT or ACT in some places!)

During 2020 and 2021, it was difficult to actually take the ACT or SAT. Test centers closed, sometimes with very little notice. Many students scrambled to take the test.

In order to provide a socially distant test center, those test centers that remained open had fewer seats available for test takers. In short, it was a big pain to take the standardized tests during that time. A number of my tutoring students were affected.

Two students went out of state to take the exams because the local test centers kept closing. Several students had multiple exams canceled, which was incredibly frustrating. One student actually flew to another country, stayed with relatives, and took a standardized test! 

To keep people safe during that time and to help alleviate the added stress of taking the SAT or ACT in the middle of a pandemic, most schools became Test Optional. While many colleges predicted they would be Test Optional for a limited time, some schools are remaining Test Optional on a permanent basis.

This is an interesting trend. Some schools have gone even further and won’t  consider test scores from any applicant. The University of California schools

“will not consider SAT or ACT test scores when making admissions decisions or awarding scholarships.”

University of California

In other words, UC schools are now Test Blind.

Do Test Optional Schools Look at Your SAT/ACT Scores?

No. You control who sees your SAT or ACT scores. So, if a school is Test Optional, you never have to submit your scores. On the college’s application, you can indicate that you won’t be submitting scores.

How Will Test Optional Schools Accept Students Without SAT Scores?

Should you decide to apply to a college without submitting your standardized test scores, be aware that the other components of your application will be weighed more heavily. What are they? Let’s look.

Michigan State  says,

“We will continue to look at all factors on your application, including academic performance in high school, strength and quality of your curriculum, recent trends in your academic performance, your class rank, and your leadership, talents, conduct and diversity of experience.”

Michigan State University

If your high school has a rigorous curriculum and is known to be among the best schools, you can be sure that colleges will take that into account as well.

Should I Submit SAT Scores If They Are Optional?

In some cases, the answer to this question is a no brainer. If you have exceptionally high standardized test scores, you likely want to submit your scores as they can enhance your application.

Conversely, maybe you’re an outstanding student but don’t do well on standardized tests. Test Optional may be for you.

But bear in mind, this will mean that the rest of your application needs to be as strong as possible since other aspects will be weighed more heavily. So get working on those essays! 

The University of Washington, a Test Optional School, tries to help students with this decision by offering some guidance. As do most schools, UW takes a holistic approach to admissions and says,

“At the UW, you will not be disadvantaged for sending low scores or for not sending scores.”

University of Washington

On the other hand, if you scored really well on the test, UW says,

“However, high test scores (1400 SAT/31 ACT or above) may be considered for a handful of students who may not otherwise be admitted.”

University of Washington

Well, if you’re a student who has or can break into the 1400 SAT/31 ACT score range, it seems like submitting your scores will help your cause at most schools. But what if your scores fall somewhere in the middle? Decisions, decisions, decisions.

If you fall into the category of not super high scores but not super low scores either, then to make the decision, you’ll have to do your homework. Go to the websites of your favorite colleges and look at the freshman class profile or enrolled students statistics.

See where your test scores fall and determine how many first year students were accepted without scores the previous year. One caveat: some colleges do not provide the information on how many enrolled students did not submit test scores. At a particular college, If you discover that most students submitted their scores, it may be important to still do so. 

College websites generally show the middle 50% range for test scores. You can compare your test score with those of the current freshman class.

See where your score falls – if it lands you in the top 25%, great! You should submit your scores. Even if your score puts you in the top 50%, you may still want to submit the scores.

If your score puts you closer to the bottom, then don’t submit test scores. One unintended consequence of Test Optional policies: the scores you are looking at are ONLY from those that submitted scores.

Chances are, they are higher than the general population of the freshman at the school. Bear in mind that at some Test Optional schools, fewer than half of the students actually submitted scores. See the chart below to get an idea:

CollegeACT –
Middle
50%
SAT –
Middle
50%
Enrolled
students
who
submitted
scores
Fordham
University
31 – 341360 – 149043%
Case
Western
Reserve
32 – 351420 – 151045%
Lehigh
University
32 – 341380 – 150048%
Some colleges and universities have gone test optional, while others still require the SAT or ACT to be considered for admission.

Can I Get Into College Without The SAT Or ACT?

Yes. Those colleges that are Test Optional typically have language on their website that provides assurance that they will take other things into consideration. Some universities go out of their way to assure students that they can still get in without test scores. 

Is Test Optional A Good Idea?

The jury is out on that. Certainly, there are some great benefits to Test Optional policies.

Students who otherwise would be excellent candidates for a particular school won’t be discouraged from applying because of low test scores. This can open the door for lots of students to apply.

Schools are supposed to look at the whole person when considering college acceptance so some think that attaching a test score to a person can go contrary to that idea. 

For the particular college or university in question, making test scores optional means that school will likely have many more applications to consider. BU reported that the number of applications for the class of 2025 increased by 24% – they had 15,000 more applications to consider! That’s a lot of work for the admissions committee.

Another consequence: the reported SAT and ACT scores will now look inflated for the current freshman class because only those who submitted scores were included in the data. Think about that. Most of those who don’t submit scores likely didn’t take the exam or received low scores on it. 

Interestingly, MIT announced in March 2022 they will be requiring SAT/ACT scores again. According to their website,

“Our research shows standardized tests help us better assess the academic preparedness of all applicants, and also help us identify socioeconomically disadvantaged students who lack access to advanced coursework or other enrichment opportunities that would otherwise demonstrate their readiness for MIT.”

Masssachusetts Institute of Technology

It isn’t apparent yet whether other schools will follow suit.  In many ways, the Test Optional policy is being viewed as a great college admissions experiment.

But many of the most competitive colleges, including those in the Ivy League, are still gathering data, watching to see how the experiment turns out. Some have already committed to a permanent Test Optional policy; others are taking a wait and see approach. 

Does Applying Test Optional Hurt You?

Most schools have language to the contrary. For the school year 2022-2023, Duke University declares,

“Students who apply without SAT or ACT scores this year will not be at a disadvantage in our consideration of their applications. Our decisions are based on a student’s comprehensive application materials, with or without test scores.”

Duke University

Other schools make similar statements. As mentioned before, do your research – maybe you can find out what percent of students were accepted without test scores. That may give you a better idea of how that particular school views applications with no test scores.

Conclusion

Whatever you decide about test scores, try to keep it in perspective. While it’s important to carefully consider whether or not you should submit scores to Test Optional colleges, this decision in the end won’t determine your success or failure at college!  

You can learn more about SAT Math scores (including the average and how your intended major stacks up!) here.

You can find out how to prepare for the SAT Math section here.

You can find a helpful list of topics (along with examples) to help you get ready for the SAT Math section here.

Applying to colleges? Learn about early decision, early action, and regular decision here.

You can learn about the factors to consider when choosing a college here.

Don’t forget to subscribe to my YouTube channel & get updates on new math videos!

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About the author:
Jean-Marie Gard is an independent math teacher and tutor based in Massachusetts. You can get in touch with Jean-Marie at https://testpreptoday.com/.

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