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What You Need to Know About Test-Optional Before Applying to College

More colleges than ever before allow students to apply without an SAT or ACT score, a change accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, more than 1,900 colleges give students the choice to apply without submitting a test score, representing 85% of all colleges and universities using the Common Application. [1] This is great news for those students who have difficulty accessing a test center, don’t perform well on these types of tests, or simply feel that their test scores do not accurately represent their abilities.

Before making any decisions about test scores, you need to understand how test-optional works. The policies at each college can vary widely. You need to know how each college will evaluate your test score.

What happens if I don’t submit a test score? Colleges will rely on the other parts of your application such as essays, extracurricular activities, academic records, and teacher recommendations. That means those parts take on elevated importance and should effectively highlight your strengths.

But what does test-optional really mean? To understand what this means for you, it is essential to read and understand the testing policy for each one of the colleges where you are applying. Test-optional does not mean the same thing at every school. Here are some different kinds:

  • Test-optional – Most colleges with a test-optional policy state that a student will not be disadvantaged in the application process if they do not submit standardized test scores. [2] This policy often includes scholarship consideration without a test score. [3]

  • Test-blind – A few colleges do not consider a test score at any point in their admissions process, such as the University of California or California State university systems.

  • Test-flexible or sometimes required – These colleges are generally test-optional but may require a test score for certain majors, direct admission to a particular program, scholarships, or certain types of students [4]. Some of these colleges may also ask you to submit an additional essay or other work. These policies are not always labeled as “test flexible,” so it’s important to read the entire policy for each one of your colleges.

How do I know if I should take a standardized test? Start with a complete practice test for both the SAT and ACT to see which format works better for you. If some test preparation could help you raise your score enough to benefit your application, then plan to test. If taking a test is available and affordable, taking at least one test can help you make an informed decision about what to include in your application. A high score may help your overall application. It may also help you meet direct admission standards for certain colleges within larger universities. Talk with a professional about the best timing for taking any tests.

How do I know if I should submit a test score? The answer to this question can be much more complicated. In general, you should consider submitting your test score or scores to a college when your scores fall in the middle 50% range or higher for those students being admitted to that school. However, each situation is different and there are often special considerations such as:

  • Your overall score is lower than the middle range, but you have a strong subscore that you want to highlight. An example might be a particularly high math score for a student who wants to study math.

  • Your overall score is lower than the middle range, but it is high when compared with others at your high school.

  • Your overall score is lower than the middle range, but a particular college prefers to see a test score. This may be difficult to determine on your own without the help of a professional.

  • You are home-schooled.

Which scores should I submit? Many colleges use a process called superscoring where they take the highest subscore from different test dates to come up with a new total. [5] This new total is often higher than the total for any single test. However, some colleges want you to submit scores from all the tests that you have taken, so make sure that you understand the complete testing policy for all your colleges.

Test-optional policies give you choices. You should consider those options within the context of your overall application and where you are applying. Consulting with an expert can help you decide how to navigate these choices and improve your application. Ultimately, it’s your decision to choose the schools and policies that work best for you.



Cheryl Chamberlain

Principal Consultant,
Chamberlain College Consulting

I've posted some resources on this site to help students and families, but there's SO much to know. If you have gotten to the point you need professional help, I'm here for you!


You can use the button below to send me an email and let's find a time to talk.

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