What Does Test Optional Mean and Should You Use It?

If you have a high school student, you need to understand what test optional means for college admission. In this article, I will cover how test optional admission works, common misconceptions, why should and shouldn’t apply without test scores, and how you can maximize your opportunities.

What Does Test Optional Mean?

Test optional is a term used when a college or university does not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores for admission. These test results are optional: students have the choice to send or withhold their scores. 

Test optional is not new. For example, Wake Forest University has been test optional since 2008. Many schools have made admissions decisions without requiring ACT or SAT scores, but the practice wasn’t common until the pandemic. 

When all testing shut down in 2020, many students found it difficult (or impossible) to take the ACT or SAT in their local area. As a result, colleges and universities made testing optional for the class of 2021. Many school extended these policies for the class of 2022.

Now that school has returned to in-person instruction around the country and the ACT and SAT have been given as scheduled for the past year, many colleges will require class of 2023 seniors to apply with test scores. However, some colleges have decided to continue their test optional policies for another year or, in some cases, make them permanent. 

Not the Same as Test Blind

A quick clarification here. (Because few things in college admissions are simple!) Test optional is not the same as test blind. 

Test optional means that students have a choice. If you have awesome scores and send them, the college will consider your results. If you don’t love your ACT/SAT scores and don’t send them, the college won’t consider them (or their absence.)

Some schools have taken it a step further; they will NOT consider test scores, even if you send them. These schools are test blind. 

Perfect score? They don’t care. Won’t look at it. It won’t help you. That’s were test blind is different from test optional. 

Here is a list of schools that are currently test blind: https://www.fairtest.org/sites/default/files/Test-Blind-Admissions-List.pdf

Probably the most well-known test blind schools are the University of California System (UCLA, Berkeley, etc.)

Common Misconceptions

Here are some of the common test optional misconceptions I’ve encountered:

The school was test optional last year, so it will be test optional when I apply in the fall. —Not true. Schools change policies all the time and you need to verify for your year. 

It will look bad if I don’t send my test scores. — No! They are telling you they don’t need your scores. Believe them. If a school has a test optional policy, they are giving you the power to decide and they won’t hold it against you if you choose not to submit SAT or ACT scores. 

But I can show improvement (or effort) if I submit all my ACT or SAT results. — Colleges aren’t making admission decisions based on effort or improvement, especially when it comes to test scores. Sending lower than average scores to a school hoping they will notice your effort is a horrible idea. 

Two of the schools I looked up are test optional, so the other schools on my list will be too. They are all similar (in size, geography, selectivity, etc.)— No! Even very similar schools can have different policies. You have to check EVERY school on your list. 

All of my schools are test optional, so I don’t need the SAT or ACT! — Maybe, but maybe not. Just because you won’t need test scores for admission to the university doesn’t mean you won’t be asked to submit them for scholarship consideration or admission to special programs or majors. Do some additional research before you decide you won’t need any standardized tests. 

Who Should Apply Test Optional

Test optional admission is ideal for those students whose grades are better than their ACT or SAT scores. These students have strong high school transcripts. Hopefully, they also have excellent admissions essays, demonstrated involvement, an obvious interest in learning, and all the other factors that college admissions officers consider. 

A student should apply test optional if

  • The rest of their application (transcripts, essays, activities, etc.) is strong
  • Their ACT or SAT scores are average or below average for the particular school
  • There is no other reason to send scores (necessary for a particular program, for example) 

Who Should Apply with Test Scores

The most obvious reason to send scores is because they are required. 

Students can also send scores when their ACT or SAT results are above average for that particular university. This means a student might apply test optional at one school, but send her results to another college where they are above average. 

Students will also want to send test scores if their ACT or SAT results help show college readiness. In most cases this means the student’s test scores are better than his or her grades. 

If your test scores are high enough to help (in comparison to the rest of your application or the average scores for that school), send them. 

Realities to Consider

Test optional admissions involves more than a discussion of test scores. Here are some factors you should consider: 

When a student applies test optional, everything else they send to a college takes on greater significance. This means you need to be sure your transcript, essays, and other application materials are the best they can be. 

You have to research each and every school on your list. You must know their policies and understand how they will make admissions decisions. 

Data driven schools (large state universities, for example) will continue to focus on data driven admissions even when test optional. This means a student’s GPA / class rank may be even more important in the absence of scores. 

Highly selective colleges will continue to be highly selective in the absence of scores. 

Test optional does not make it easier to get into a particular school. It just means they will evaluate all other application materials and not consider test scores. 

What You Need to Do to Maximize Your Options

You should start researching the policies at schools on your list. Keep in mind policies are changing, so you may need to update your research prior to applying. 

Take the ACT or SAT. A majority of students will apply somewhere where test scores are required. Take time your junior year to study for the test of your choice and work to maximize your scores. 

Don’t make the mistake of sending test scores to colleges until you are ready to apply. I discussed this in greater depth last week; you can read it HERE.

Take time to seriously evaluate your own strengths and weaknesses and understand how your ACT or SAT scores could help or hurt your application chances. If you want some help doing this, you can always schedule a one-hour consultation with me and we can discuss your options [HERE]. 

Conclusion

Test optional admission has added another layer of complication to an already confusing process. For some students, test optional is a benefit: they can rely on strong grades, activities, and essays and not worry that their ACT / SAT results aren’t quite as good. Other students may find their applications are helped by sending test scores. 

Test optional is the new trend in admissions. Post-pandemic, I think we will still find a majority of colleges and universities require test scores, so you shouldn’t skip the ACT / SAT. 

For good students whose standardized test scores are never the best representations of their abilities, the option to apply to college without the SAT or ACT is significant. 

Overall, test optional policies open more possibilities (and potential complications) for applicants.

ACT Scores, SAT Scores, test blind, test optional, tips for college admission

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