Test-optional schools are becoming more common. Are test optional-colleges right for you?

Test-optional schools are becoming more common lately. Schools are eschewing SAT and ACT scores for admissions criteria that better represent students as individuals. Students may find it exciting not to have to take standardized admissions tests to get into college. However, this subject should be better understood before jumping to any conclusions. Here we break down the complexities of test-optional admissions and see who it is best for.

Not sure whether to prep for the ACT or the SAT? Read more about how to decide which test to take.

What Does Test-Optional Mean?

Test-optional means that colleges consider admission test scores an optional component of applications but the scores are not prerequisites for admission. Students may choose whether or not they wish to submit test scores as part of their application.

These colleges view test scores as simply another detail in a student’s academic profile. While these details can vary in levels of significance, they certainly don’t tell the whole story. If they don’t serve the narrative that an application is constructing, then the test scores may be better left out. Test scores need to work in context with other key parts of the application, including transcripts, personal statements, portfolios, awards, projects, extracurricular activities, and recommendations. 

How Many Test-Optional Schools Are There?

Over 1,000 colleges currently use a test-optional admissions process, according to FairTest. This number needs some context. Most of the colleges on the aforementioned list are not very competitive. Also, while they might have some desired programs they’re not going to satisfy everybody. Regardless, the University of Chicago has test-optional admissions, and it is considered one of the best colleges in the country. Unfortunately, if you’re looking at the Ivy League schools, think again. 

What colleges mean by “test-optional” also varies. Test-optional usually implies other requirements, such as sustaining a certain GPA level. Sometimes it is only available to in-state students. In these cases, the schools are better described as “test flexible” because they still require test scores from most applicants.

Sometimes different programs in a college have different requirements. Even if a college generally has a test-optional admissions policy, it may not apply to specific programs. Getting admitted into a college and getting admitted into a program are two different things. Specific programs might have more stringent admissions requirements (as well as different people managing admissions). Applicants should research specific programs so you know what they’re looking for.

Finally, test scores often factor into financial aid decisions. You don’t want to find out the hard way that you would have been eligible for some very helpful financial aid if had you only submitted a test score. It depends on where you are applying.

Should Colleges Be Test-Optional?

Whether or not colleges should be test-optional is not a simple question. Most often colleges choose to be test-optional to ensure accessibility. This encourages the growth of a more diverse student population. 

However, every year, test score requirements become more stringent and competitive and tests become more difficult. Students have to work harder and harder to achieve the success of peers prior. This requires study and practice time and often requires tutoring, which can cost money. If students don’t get their target score on the first try, they need to take the test again, which also costs money. 

Because of a wide array of factors, lots of students cannot access or afford test prep and thus get left behind. In this case, test scores should not be a major factor in whether or not they can get into college. A test-optional approach is beneficial to them.

Also, for students with a variety of disabilities, standardized testing is not ideal. While accommodations and assistive technologies are available to these students, test scores may not provide a strong indication of how talented these students are. Other factors might be much more accurate, and test-optional is useful here too.

Should I Submit Test Scores?

Regardless, lots of students will take the SAT or ACT. They will submit their scores as a key part of their college applications, whether or not the above scenarios apply. Lots of highly competitive schools still require test scores and will continue to for the foreseeable future.  If you’re trying to decide whether or not to submit your score, ask yourself two questions: 

1) Does it support or detract from your academic profile?

2) Where do you want to study?

The value of test-optional admissions largely depends on personal goals. If your answer to the first question is “it detracts” and all of the schools you are interested in have test-optional admissions, then you may not need to worry about test scores. But don’t settle for less just because you don’t want to take the test. If your answer to the first question is “no, it doesn’t,” but the best programs in your field of interest are all offered at schools that require high test scores, then you’re going to need high test scores if you’re planning to apply there. Don’t plan for the test; plan for your long-term goals.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of how you feel about test-optional admissions, an important takeaway here is to remember that while test prep is an important, effective step that students can take toward attending a university program that meets their needs, college counseling is also a very important part of navigating the admission process. Students should consider how their college lists and goals might shift. Only applying to test-optional schools is not necessarily an ideal plan, depending on the circumstances. Knowing where you need to go to achieve your academic goals is the key to making decisions about how you should prepare, what test you should take, or whether you need to take a test at all.