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What is Test Optional & Should You Submit Test Scores

Test Optional has been around for a very long time, but is getting renewed attention in the wake of COVID-19 as some colleges have indicated a move to Test Optional for the class of 2021. 

What is Test-Optional

Test optional means allowing students to apply to a college with or without ACT/SAT scores; it’s left up to the student.

Data from the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) shows for admission decisions colleges rely first on grades and course rigor then ACT/SAT scores followed by soft factors such as essays, recommendations, and activities. When a college allows students to apply test optional (without ACT or SAT scores), they are indicating they know there are some solid students who are simply not great test takers who will be successful at their school. When evaluating these students, they will take a deeper look at the other factors and not hold it against the student if they withhold scores.

For schools that do not offer test optional, they have data to show they find ACT/SAT scores to be predictive of who is successful at their university; therefore, they want this data in making an admission decision.

There are a very limited number of non-selective colleges who are actually “test blind” which means even if scores are submitted by the student, they won’t be considered. ALL colleges have the option of going test blind, but few choose to do so which demonstrates they do see a value in the scores if submitted.

In 2018 the University of Chicago went test-optional. They were the first uber-selective school to do so. The following year, UChicago indicated only 10-15% of their applicants withheld ACT/SAT scores; therefore, 85-90% of the students did submit scores even though they didn’t need to. An upside to the university is most certainly the group of students who went test optional had lower scores than the rest. This then boosts the average ACT/SAT score of admitted UChicago students at a school that already only admits a single-digit number of students. The methodology of many college rankings like US News and World Report actually awards colleges with a higher ranking for having higher ACT/SAT scores and for being more selective – admitting few students. Additionally, while UChicago cited wanting greater financial and racial diversity in their student body as a reason for going test optional, their enrollment numbers show the move to test optional did nothing to increase a diverse student body.

Should you Apply Test Optional?

Generally speaking with most things, more information and a greater depth of data are better. If you were planning a family vacation, would you purchase airfare or rent a condo based looking at only two options or would you feel better with your reservation decisions if you looked at all airlines on a variety of dates and a wide array of lodging options? Just like you, colleges generally prefer more data on a student than less when making a decision.

Just because test optional is available, doesn’t mean it’s in the student’s best interest to pursue it. If the student’s test scores are in-line or above what the college has admitted in previous years, they will only serve to help the student’s case for admission and can’t hurt it.

For those considering test optional, know that withholding testing data will mean the college will take a closer look at the data they do have available. Ask yourself – what components of my profile and application will stand out when read in the admissions office. If you feel the test scores will only hurt and the other factors are strong, then maybe test optional will benefit you. Go for it!

Keep in mind, even for schools who have gone test optional, there are often exceptions to this policy which may include home school and international students as well as certain majors – always check with the college! Additionally, while some colleges will allow a student to apply test optional for admission, those same schools may use scores for awarding merit money. AND – the NCAA is NOT TEST OPTIONAL for student-athletes, even if the college is; DI and DII students must meet minimum ACT/SAT scores. No one wants to miss the boat on free money, so ask how this is handled.

Advice from Babson Admissions:

“Submit if above the mean. That said, students are still considered in the context of their environment. Babson emphasizes math. If it’s tough to get an A in math at your school, math SAT (ACT) can help.”

What About Testing and Test Prep?

I took a very unscientific survey of a group of independent college counselors asking how often and how many times have they had a student apply to 100% test optional schools. The answer was fewer than 0.5% of the time. For the few that did apply to 100% test optional schools, it was a planned strategy for a struggling tester, and I agree – a great strategy for a few students.

Bottom line – it’s rare a student would apply to all test optional schools which means testing at least twice and prepping are in order to maximize testing performance as we’ve previously discussed.  It’s not until you have at least two ACT/SAT scores that a student could also take advantage of Super Scoring policies at colleges who accept a super score. I’ve also never had a student apply to all super score colleges.

The Impact of COVID-19

The April ACT, May SAT and some of the March SATs have been canceled. It’s up in the air whether the summer test dates for June (both SAT and ACT), July ACT, August SAT and September ACT will take place. In light of this, some colleges are going test optional for the class of 2021 only in case students don’t have an opportunity to test before application deadlines this fall. The organization has a list of schools allowing students from the class of 2021 to apply test optional; at this time, none of these schools on that list have joined the permanent test optional ranks which is listed here.

For students in the class of 2021 who have already tested and are satisfied with their scores, we recommend, as discussed above, they submit their scores to provide additional data that they are an academic fit when applying to college and that they are keeping the door open to robust financial aid and athletic scholarships.

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