For many families the choice to send or not send test scores is new. We have gotten used to submitting ACT / SAT scores, even if we didn’t love our results, so the idea of choice can add another layer of confusion. The decision can be complicated by the fact that the same score might help at one college, but hurt at another. Let’s examine when you should and shouldn’t submit test scores for admission.
Test Optional Background
Let’s start with a little background on the term “test optional.” For many years, decades in some cases, a handful of colleges, mostly small private schools, have made standardized testing optional for admission. Students could send ACT / SAT scores, but didn’t have to. If scores were sent, the school would consider them; if no scores were submitted, the school would evaluate all other parts of the application. There was no bias towards those who sent in scores. Admissions officers didn’t wonder why a student might choose not to send them. These colleges simply evaluated what a student submitted.
Yes, these historically test optional schools tended to place more emphasis on a holistic review, meaning they weighed all the aspects of a student’s application looking for personal and academic strengths. These schools were not making decisions based on a GPA / rank + test score formula.
Then the pandemic shut down ACT / SAT testing for most of 2020. Even when testing resumed, students found it difficult to find test centers and many were dropped from their test site for reduced capacity and social distancing changes. (2021 graduates know what a pain this was.) Because so many students had not been able to take or re-take the ACT / SAT, colleges decided to adopt test optional policies. Even the big state universities that tend to rely on test scores + grades allowed students to apply without submitting ACT or SAT results.
This trend is set to continue next year, meaning current juniors (class of 2022) will have a choice to send or not send test scores when they apply next fall. Currently 2/3 of colleges have officially announced test optional policies for next year and I expect we will see more schools added to this list. There may be some colleges that require ACT / SAT scores next year, but a majority will leave the decision up to individual applicants.
Test optional may feel new, but it is a well known and understood practice in college admission. (Wake Forest University, which ranks in the U. S. News top 30 for universities, has been test optional since 2009.) There isn’t an unspoken benefit to sending or not sending test scores, so students should decide on a case by case basis whether scores will hurt or help.
Do Your Research
All the suggestions I’m going to make depend on you doing some research. I wish there was a way for me to generalize and save you time and effort, but this is one of those situations in which each college has its own policies. You will need to understand the admissions requirements for each school on your list.
One extra term you might encounter— test blind. Test blind is not the same as test optional. Test blind means a college has decided not to use test scores for admission, even if a student submits them. The University of California System is the best example of this. You can send your perfect ACT or SAT score to UCLA, Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, etc. and they won’t look at it. Your test score will be discarded; they will not consider it when evaluating your application. Test blind schools are less common, but it is good to be aware of the policy.
One last word of caution— do your own research and use the college’s own website. This isn’t the time to rely on the high school grapevine, what you read on a website (even mine!), or what happened last year. Before you apply, check every school on your list and verify application deadlines and required materials. When in doubt, pick up the phone and call the admissions office. They will be happy to answer your questions; that’s why they are there.
Love your scores? Think they will help make the case for admitting you? Send them.
Most students in this category aren’t even thinking about test optional issues. They are proud of their ACT or SAT scores. Those scores equal or surpass the student’s academic numbers (GPA, class rank, AP/IB scores, etc.) and continue to show the student is a strong candidate at that particular school.
Don’t love your scores? Are your best ACT / SAT results significantly below the average scores reported at a particular school? Are the scores lower than your other academic numbers? Don’t send them.
Determining average scores for the schools on your list is pretty straightforward. Obviously, the best source of information is the college’s website. (I usually start by searching “admitted student profile XYZ university”.) Schools tend to report the scores for the middle 50% of admitted students, so expect to see a range of numbers. If your scores are beneath their published range, it would put you in the bottom 25%— not a deal breaker on its own, but not a positive boost to your application for admission.
Evaluating your scores in the context of your overall academic numbers can be harder. Would you be a stronger applicant if a school only saw your transcript (GPA / class rank)? I wish this was as easy as searching the average GPA for admitted students, but I’ve found those numbers are unreliable. High schools calculate GPA using different methods; many colleges recalculate using their own systems and then you have to guess whether the numbers you see on their website represent weighted or unweighted averages. This is where you might use the scattergram data from your high school found in Naviance or other similar programs. You could talk with your school counselor and ask questions of admissions officers at online info sessions, college fairs, or campus visits. The more you know about how your numbers compare at that particular school, the easier it will be to make this evaluation.
Many students who opt NOT to send test scores have pretty good grades and ACT / SAT results that are obviously lower in comparison. This could be an average student with below average scores or a top-of-the-class student with above average, but not excellent, test scores. If your scores would hurt your application, don’t send them.
Need to Evaluate
There are a number of students who fall somewhere in between. The question to ask is “Does my ACT / SAT score show me to be a stronger (or weaker) student when compared with the rest of the information I’m sending this school?”
Maybe your test scores are within average for a school, but on the lower end. Maybe your test scores are about equal to your GPA, but you wish both were higher. You will have to evaluate how sending (or not sending) scores could impact your chances of admission and make a choice.
Before you make a final decision, make sure there are no special circumstances impacted by your decision.
Pre-pandemic, all prospective college athletes had to meet NCAA minimum standards which included ACT / SAT test scores and a core GPA. The higher a student’s core GPA, the lower he or she could score on standardized tests. Because many students didn’t have access to testing for parts of the past year, NCAA stopped requiring test scores for students seeking initial eligibility for 2021-22 and 2022-23 (for current seniors and juniors.)
Here’s the possible issue— while NCAA and the university may make the ACT / SAT optional, some university athletic programs may require test scores for their student athletes.
“NCAA stated that “About 37% indicated at that time they still will require the SAT or ACT. The remaining 21% have policies that are unclear or dependent on other variables (e.g., major, high school GPA).” https://www.ncsasports.org/coronavirus-sports/ncaa-eligibility-center-covid-19
If you are a prospective college athlete, check with all the coaches at all the programs you are considering and find out what they require.
Scholarships / Special Programs
Another possible exception to test optional decisions may come from specific scholarships or programs. While the colleges on your list may be test optional for admission, you may find some scholarships or special programs still require test scores. Many universities are awarding merit aid without requiring ACT / SAT results, but not all school and not all programs are the same. Make sure you check the current policy for every application. (Sorry— no easy shortcut for this!)
Test optional admissions isn’t new, but for the graduating classes of 2021 and 2022, test optional has become the norm. Students may choose to send scores to some schools on their list, but not others. You can evaluate each situation based on your other academic factors and the admitted student profile for each college.
When you register to take the ACT / SAT, you are given the opportunity to send four “free” score reports. In the past, I would have clients send these score reports because they figured they would eventually apply to that school. Why not send the score now for no extra charge?! However, test optional admission changes this approach. DO NOT register to send score reports before you have taken the test, seen your results, and had a chance to evaluate whether the score would help or hurt your application for admission. This is one of those cases in which “free” can have a significant cost.