Applying Test-Optional? Here’s How to Decide.

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: May 31, 2020

Are you thinking of applying test-optional? More than 1,000 colleges and universities across the United States no longer require students to submit SAT or ACT scores as part of their applications?

The first to adopt a test-optional policy in 2018, Wake Forest University said about its decision: “….it’s not that we think standardized tests are evil. We think that the measure of your intelligence and potential requires a deeper dive. It’s about life experience, aspiration, work ethic, engagement, and all of what makes you who you are.”

Colleges going test-optional shows they recognize that it takes more than a score to show a student’s promise. But before deciding whether or not to send your test scores to colleges, consider the pros and cons.

What are the Reasons for Sending Test Scores?

  • To be eligible for merit awards. Some schools may require that you submit scores to qualify for certain merit (non-need based) scholarships. Others may not have such requirements. Be sure to check the policies of individual colleges and universities before deciding to omit or submit your scores.
  • High test scores can give you an edge in admissions.Having a high or exceptional SAT or ACT score can make you a competitive candidate. If your score aligns with the middle 50-percentile testing range of students the college accepted for admission in the previous class, then you will be at an advantage. Colleges use test scores to predict how well students will perform in college courses. A solid SAT or ACT score can demonstrate your ability to excel.

What are the Reasons for Not Sending Test Scores?

You may be torn about whether or not to send your SAT or ACT scores. The reasons why you may want to omit scores are that you can:

  • Highlight other skills and talents in your application. Perhaps you didn’t perform well on the SAT or ACT, or you scored below the middle 50-percentile testing range of the college’s admitted student profile. Applying without submitting your scores may give you the mental freedom of your score not being factored into the decision. However, without standardized test measures to show your potential to succeed in college, you will have to balance your application with impressive credentials. Moreover, you’ll need to write essays that demonstrate your writing, problem-solving, and critical thinking abilities, and include recommendation letters that help support your capacity to achieve in college.
  • Save stress from the SAT and ACT. I have worked with many students who have taken standardized exams 2, 3, or even 4 times. I have asked them to stop the standardized test obsession. If you decide not to report scores, then you can focus less on studying for exams, to always earn a better score. Instead, you can work on making better grades in classes, getting involved in extracurricular activities and volunteer projects, and studying for standardized exams that can lead to college credit like Advancement Placement or International Baccalaureate.
  • Save Money. According to Forbes, U.S. families spent $1 Billion on test prep exam tutoring. The average family will spend $3,000 for 20 hours of tutoring. This is a lot of money that your parents could spend on other things, such as lessons learning a new skill or sport, or a trip abroad to practice your language skills or learn a new culture.
applying test-optional
The Reasons to Apply Test-Optional

Other Things to Consider

There are other points to consider.

  • If you plan to apply for scholarships, you may need to take the SAT or ACT at least one time to be eligible.
  • You may perform well on the SAT or ACT exam and decide that it may benefit you to submit a score.
  • If you perform well on the SAT or ACT exam and don’t send a score, colleges may assume that you got a low score. This could count against you when you had an opportunity to show your strength as an applicant. But if you’re reading this during the COVID-19 pandemic, don’t worry. The College Board has asked colleges not to consider the SAT score in 2020-2021 admissions decisions since the agency canceled spring exams due to stay at home orders.

How to Decide if You Should Apply Test-Optional?

  • Is your GPA higher than a 3.6? Studies show that a student’s performance in high school classes is the best indicator of how they will perform in college. If you get good grades in high school, colleges can feel assured that you can do well in college coursework.
  • Have you taken rigorous high school classes? Colleges will want to see that you have taken honors and Advanced Placement placement classes or are enrolled in your school’s International Baccalaureate program.
  • Are you involved in extracurricular activities? Show colleges that you are involved in after-school activities that show leadership and civic participation. You should volunteer and make positive contributions to humanitarian causes you believe in and are passionate about. The quality of your involvement (i.e. the amount of time you spend) matters more than the number of activities you participate in lightly or sporadically. Also, self-initiated projects, outside of school or a structured program, can give you bonus points since it shows your entrepreneurial spirit, drive, and motivation.
  • Can you expect powerful letters of recommendation? Identify teachers who can write a letter of recommendation that supports your academic record and strengthens other components of your college application. The person you choose to write your recommendation letter should know you well and be able to write strongly in your favor for admission. Read this article to learn more about how to get a strong letter of recommendation from teachers and your guidance counselor.
  • Do you have a positive social media presence? Make sure you review your profiles to ensure that all social media profiles do not have any negative pictures or content that calls your character into question by admissions officers. According to Kaplan, 36% of admissions officers did look at students’ social media profiles like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

Conclusion + Next Steps

Applying test-optional or not is your choice to make. Use the information in this article to help you decide. Either way, remember that you are more than your score!

If you’re reading this during the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools in the 2020-2021 admissions cycle will be going test-optional. Comment below if you will be submitting a score or applying test-optional.

For those applying test-optional, remember you’ll need a strong essay. So be sure to read my article about Writing a College Essay.

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Bethany Goldszer is top college admissions and financial aid expert. She's been featured in HuffPost, USA Today, Newsday, Queens Gazette, and Official Black Wall Street & voted Best of Long Island. Faced with the overwhelming stress of applying, getting admitted to and financing her University of Chicago education, she started Stand Out College Prep LLC in 2012 so that no student or parent would have to go through this process alone. Over the last 15 years, Bethany has worked with over 1,500 students, helping them and their parents get into their top choice colleges and secure more than $20M in financial aid and scholarships. And each year, she continues to help more students stand out in the college admissions process and their parents navigate financial aid and scholarships.