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Applying Test-Optional? Pros and Cons.

by Bethany Goldszer | Last Updated: September 20, 2021

Are you thinking of applying test-optional? You have an important decision to make. Test scores in your candidate file may impact your chances of acceptance and merit scholarship awards at your top choice colleges.

Deciding if you want to send test scores is a normal part of the college admissions process. What you choose—to send test scores or not—is a personal decision. Read this post before you decide to help understand the pros and cons of applying test-optional

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Key Takeaways

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In 2018, Wake Forest University was the first college to announce a test-optional admissions policy. The school said: “… .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.”

Soon more schools followed, including my alma mater, the University of Chicago. I felt honored to be one of the first to know before the news officially broke in June 2018, while at a counselors training at the Hyde Park campus.

Before the pandemic, a college adopting a test-optional admissions process was considered edgy by parents, students, and counselors alike. But today, things are entirely different. Challenges the Class of 2021 faced in taking exams changed the tides. And most U.S. colleges and universities have a version of a test-optional policy.

When to send test scores

To qualify for merit awards. Some schools require that you submit test scores to be eligible for merit scholarships. Merit scholarships are awards not based on financial need. Like many families, yours may depend on merit scholarships to discount tuition, room, and board and make college affordable. Not all colleges require test scores for merit award consideration. But many big colleges and public state colleges with more students and limited funding do. As with any advice, check with the policies of your colleges before you decide about sending test scores.

To give you an edge in college admissions. You are among the most competitive candidates when you score high or exceptional on the SAT or ACT. If your test scores fall in or above the middle 50-percentile testing range of students the college accepted for admission in the previous class, then you will be at an advantage. Also, colleges use test scores to predict how well students will perform in college courses. A solid test score can demonstrate your ability to excel.

"… .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."

Wake Forest University

When NOT to send test scores

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The reasons why you may want to omit scores are that you can vary. For example, perhaps you want to:

Highlight other skills and talents in your application. Let’s assume 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 test-optional may give you the mental freedom of your score not factored into an admissions decision. However, without standardized test measures to show your potential to succeed in college, you will have to balance your application with impressive credentials. Also, 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 test anxiety and stress from the SAT and ACT. I have worked with many students who have taken standardized exams as many as five times. In all cases, I asked them to stop obsessing over tests. If you decide not to report scores, you can focus less on studying for exams. You can focus on making better grades in classes, getting involved in extracurricular activities and volunteer projects, and studying for tests that may award college credit like AP, CLEP, or International Baccalaureate.

Save money to pay for other things. According to Forbes, U.S. families spend $1 Billion every year on test prep exam tutoring. The average family will pay $3,000 for 20 hours of tutoring. Your family can spend this money on other things, such as lessons learning a new skill or sport, a trip abroad to practice your language skills or learn a new culture, or financing a personal project.

Other things to consider

As with most things, it’s not always black or white. There are other points to consider. For example, if you plan to apply for private scholarships, you may need to take the SAT or ACT at least one time to be eligible.

Also, you may perform well on the SAT or ACT exam for a college’s standards. You’d know by looking at the previous year’s incoming class’ middle-50% range. If you fall within this range, then I’d advise you to send your score. But if you didn’t send a score, then colleges may assume that you scored low. Showing no score in this example could count against you since 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. Many schools have been legally barred, such as the University of California, from considering test scores in their admissions decisions due to canceled exams and students’ difficulty registering for exams.

How to decide whether to apply test optional?

Here’s a quick checklist to help you decide if you should send test scores to your colleges. Such as:

Is your grade point average higher than 3.6 out of a 4.0 scale? Colleges value academic performance based on grades in your high school classes more than a test score. If you have earned excellent grades through now, your colleges will know that you can perform well in coursework, progress, and graduate.

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. Also, experience in college-level courses at a local institution, summer enrichment program, or dual-enrollment shows that you can handle college-type work more than a test score.

Are you involved in extracurricular activities? Show colleges that you participate in after-school activities that show leadership and civic involvement. Volunteer and make positive contributions to humanitarian causes you believe in and are passionate about. Also, how have you spent your time outside of school? Deep participation, more than the number of activities on your resume, matters. So skip light or sporadic involvement. If your school doesn’t offer many options, launch your own self-initiated projects outside of school to give you bonus points on applications. It all 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 write powerfully in your favor for admission. Read this post 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 social media profiles to check. You should delete any photos or posts that call your character into question by admissions officers. According to Kaplan, 36% of admissions officers look at students’ social media profiles like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.

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. Download this worksheet to decide if you should apply to your colleges 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.