Answers to Common Questions about Test-Optional Admissions
Helpful Answers and Advice for College Applicants.
To help families make sense of the ‘new normal’ that is test-optional admissions, we offer answers to the (many!) questions we have been hearing about test-optional admissions and how students can best use these policies to their advantage during this admissions cycle.
“I heard the tests are optional this year.”
Let’s start with a bit of clarification – taking the SAT or ACT has always been optional for students unless it is required by their state for graduation. In the past, when a student opted not to take the tests, they were also opting out of applying to most of the selective colleges and universities in the United States, since those schools typically required standardized testing as part of their application process. As a result of the testing challenges fueled by the ongoing global pandemic, more than two-thirds of colleges in the US have at least temporarily dropped their testing requirements for admission. Under these policies, students have the option to withhold test scores that may not boost their chances for admission.
However, strong test scores can strengthen an application and heighten one’s chances of securing merit-based financial aid at select colleges. Just as students have long had the choice to submit or withhold AP and IB scores, which are not required for admission, students now have the similar choice of whether to submit or withhold SAT and ACT scores. Typically, it is in a student’s best interest to try the tests and see whether their scores could be an asset in the application process. Applerouth offers free practice tests almost every weekend to help students determine if the tests may play a role in their college search and application process.
“So what does test-optional mean then?”
A test-optional policy simply means that a college will consider an application complete and review it, even if the student has not submitted SAT or ACT scores. (As noted above, before the pandemic, most selective colleges previously required SAT or ACT scores for the application to be considered complete.) Test-optional means you, the student, can choose whether or not to include your test scores as part of your application to a test-optional school, much like how you’ll choose which extracurriculars to list in your application. It also means that the college will receive some applications with scores and some without. For applications with test scores, the college will review the scores as part of the admissions decision.
The National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC) invited member institutions to sign a pledge that their test-optional policy really meant that testing was optional and to date, over 550 schools have done so.
“What about test blind or test flexible?”
For the coming admissions cycle, a small number of colleges, under 50, have elected to go test blind (also known as test free or score free), which means that even if scores are submitted, they will not be considered as part of the application review. Twenty colleges and universities have adopted this position permanently and another twenty or so have engaged in pilot programs to evaluate the outcomes before making a long-term decision.
Test flexible means that the college offers an alternate admissions path to students. Students can opt out of submitting scores if their grades are above a certain threshold or they can submit some combination of other standardized test scores (like results from AP Exams) and/or writing samples in lieu of submitting the SAT or ACT.
“Will submitting test scores help or hurt my chance of admission?”
Like so many things in the college application process, the answer is, ‘it depends.’ There are some colleges where your scores will make you a stand-out applicant, perhaps even eligible for a merit scholarship, and there are other colleges where your scores might be a detriment to your application. A good rule of thumb is that if your test scores fall at or above the school’s pre-pandemic middle 50% range, your scores won’t hurt your application and in many cases can help demonstrate that you are prepared for the challenges that await in college. Colleges individually will determine how much weight they place on testing and other factors in the application.
For those looking for quantitative data regarding any test-submission advantage, unfortunately, this data is extremely hard to come by. Colleges do not have to report this information. Educational researcher and author, Jeff Selingo, reported the following data from his discussions with admissions officers. It is clear that some colleges admitted test score submitters and non-submitters at differential rates in 2021.
It’s important not to make too many assumptions from this data. The schools on this list were reading applications without test scores for the very first time, and it complicated matters that many students had fewer opportunities to test during the pandemic. Additionally, the group of score submitters and non-submitters were not a perfectly matched sample, and may have had other factors influencing their differential admit rates.
To add a level of nuance to this data, Jeff Selingo reported that some colleges have been putting more emphasis on test scores for students applying to STEM and business programs. So while test scores may factor in less for an aspiring general education major, they may loom larger for an aspiring engineer.
“Is it worth prepping for the SAT or ACT if the schools I am applying to are all test-optional?”
Again, it depends. If your scores on a practice test are within striking distance of scores that would be compelling to some of your top choices, then it is probably worth your time and effort to try and improve your scores through focused preparation. This investment may pay meaningful dividends in your application process. However, if your scores are a long way away from being competitive at your target and reach schools, then you are probably better off putting that time and energy into other parts of your application, like your GPA, commitment to extracurricular activities, or your essays. In the end, almost every part of a student’s application is optional – including even applying in the first place! Test-optional admissions policies put students firmly in the driver’s seat, so take the wheel and steer yourself where you want to go.
Want to learn more about what test-optional means for students?