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  • Writer's pictureJake Cena

What does Test Optional really mean?

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

Prior to the pandemic, the vast majority of colleges across the US required applying freshmen to submit either an SAT or ACT exam. In fact, of the 400 or so top colleges who publish this data, over two-thirds required one of these college admissions exams.

Precipitated by the lockdowns of 2020, a cascade of policy changes across the world of college admissions swiftly changed the SAT and ACT landscape. Pre-pandemic standardized tests were typically considered the second or third most important element on a college application, after GPA and course rigor.

Today, in 2023, approximately 7 out of every 8 colleges are considered test optional. Close to half are committed to remaining test optional for the foreseeable future. While, another 40% have a temporary test optional policy, hedging their bets and waiting to see what the next several years of college admissions bring.

Some colleges have even gone a step beyond Test Optional, embracing a Test Free policy, meaning they won’t look at SATs or ACTs at all, at least not when making admissions decisions.

Now students and families face a much more complex topography where some schools require tests, some won’t look at tests at all, and still others remain test optional, a policy that can seem even more mysterious, begging the question, “is the test really optional?”

So what exactly does test optional really mean?

Test optional means that students are not required to submit SAT or ACT scores to be considered for admission. However, it also means that if a score is submitted, the score will play a part in determining that student’s admission.

However, beyond this simple definition, test optional policies do vary from institution to institution. Some universities still see great value in test scores, and while they may be test optional, they’d love it if you did submit a score. Other colleges view test scores as an additional data point that may be used when the demand is higher than the supply. When trying to make decisions between students with similar GPAs, strength of schedule, and other factors, stronger test scores can help set students apart. Finally, less selective colleges that accept the majority of their applicants may view test scores as a lower priority.

With such a range of intentions behind test optional policies, how can you know where a college you are interested in stands? We suggest you visit the testing policy pages on their websites. Read their statements regarding testing. This will give you a better sense of the real role test scores may play at that institution.

If my student is not required to take an official exam, why bother taking it at all?

Taking the exam and submitting the scores from the exam are two different things. So let’s start with the first question about taking the exam.

There are many reasons why we believe that students should take one exam, at least once.

  1. Keeping options open; while some students believe that they know which institution they want to attend, we always encourage them to keep an open mind. For example, a former student of mine had been really interested in UC Davis for years (which I remember, because UC Davis is my alma mater), and that institution is test blind. However, I still encouraged her to take the test in case she changed her mind, and she ended up attending a small private school on the east coast (and was glad she had a score to submit).

  2. Test scores can be used for class placement. In fact, even many schools adopting test blind policies will still use SAT and ACT scores for class placement, allowing freshmen to skip basic undergraduate math and English courses.

  3. Some scholarships and financial aid are dependent on test scores. Many test optional schools may still offer significant financial aid to students submitting test scores. Click here for our list of SAT and ACT based scholarships.

  4. A strong score can offset a weaker GPA; GPA is one of the most important factors when it comes to college admissions. However, one way to demonstrate preparedness to colleges is to submit a strong SAT or ACT score. If a student feels that their GPA doesn’t truly represent them (perhaps the student was out sick for an extended period of time, or perhaps the student struggled during COVID years more than their peers), submitting a score that does represent them can be helpful.

  5. A strong score among peers can be helpful; Colleges and universities know what school you attend, and they also have a lot of information about each high school, such as graduation rates, courses offered, average test scores, demographics, and some other information as well. With this information, students can set themselves apart by scoring well compared to their high school peers.

  6. Test optional outcomes; among colleges and universities that have released scoring data, almost all showed students that submitted test scores were admitted at a higher rate. Some institutions showed that the rate didn’t vary too significantly, but others showed that students that submitted test scores were twice as likely to gain admission compared to students who didn’t submit test scores. These rates vary, but 0 schools showed the opposite. None of these institutions ended up admitting students that didn’t submit a test score at a higher rate than those who did submit a test score. Of course, this doesn’t mean that these institutions favor applicants with test scores. A much more likely scenario is that the students that tend to submit test scores also tend to do well in school and other areas. So one may argue that it is likely that many of these students would get in without submitting a score. But I look at this data and think that unless the SAT or ACT score really misrepresents a student, I’d encourage students to submit a score.

So that leads us to this question: how do you know if your SAT or ACT score represents you well or not? That is a hard question to answer in a general sense, as the answer is very student-specific. We will get into this in the next section.

Should my student submit an official SAT or ACT score?

Yes, if it represents your student well, but no, if you feel like it misrepresents your student. So how do you know?

For some students it is an easy decision, one way or another, and the best way to make this early determination is to look at average admissions data for the institutions to which you are interested in applying. Specifically, look for average SAT (or ACT) admissions data. A simple google search usually yields some helpful information to give you a ballpark estimate of what the average score of an admitted student is (you can also do this for GPA). If your score is higher than the average, it is probably a good idea to submit. If your score is significantly lower than the average, it is probably a good idea to not submit.

If your student is somewhere near average, or on the borderline, we recommend also comparing GPA data. Compare the average GPA of the admitted students to your GPA, and then compare that percentile to the average test score vs. your test score. For example, if you find that your student’s GPA falls around the 43th percentile, but your student’s SAT score falls around the 48th percentile, it could be a good idea to submit a score.

Keep in mind that even scores in the 25th percentile are scores of students that were admitted, so even a lower than average score can help you if the circumstances are right. Consider factors such as average scores among the students local to the same area, and average scores among students at the same high school. This data can be harder to find, but usually school counselors have a good sense about this. If you are not sure if your SAT or ACT score represents your student well, your student’s high school counselor should either have that data or have a sense of what that data looks like.

My student just isn’t a good test taker. Do you think it is still worth trying?

Yes; and I have good news and bad news. The good news is there are ways to improve test taking skills – the bad news is that many college courses rely on exams for grades. So I’d say, instead of giving your student one more chance to “put off” getting better at taking tests, l’d recommend trying to answer the question of why your student is not good at taking tests. There are a few common reasons why students feel this way, and each of these has an approach to help improve (practice is a piece of each of these approaches). These reasons include testing anxiety, not reading the questions/answers properly, not taking the test seriously enough, and not properly preparing for a test.

If your student finds these exams challenging due to a learning disability, the SAT and ACT provide accommodations to assist these students. This includes things like giving students extra time on the exams.

Final Thoughts

There are many benefits to taking an SAT or ACT exam. There may be scenarios where a student might test, and then later decide not to submit that score, but that student is better off having it and not needing it than needing it and not having it.

Not only do we believe that every student should test at least once, but we think each student owes it to themselves to do as well on the exam as possible.

Thoughtful preparation for these exam, whether that’s prep on one own or working with professionals like the team at Tried & True, is proven to have significant benefits. Scores increase with time spent in focused preparation. Khan Academy’s data shows a similar trend – the more time spent on practice problems, the higher the score increase. This is not a secret – neither the SAT nor ACT is testing IQ or aptitude. They are content-based exams, and preparing for these exams will improve your score.

If you would like to learn more about our approach to preparation, check out our Test Prep Page or Consult with one of our Expert Directors.

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