If you’re planning to apply to college in the near-future, you’re probably thinking a lot about the SAT and/or the ACT, the two standardized tests colleges have been using to make admissions decisions for generations. And yet, for this current generation of students, the college admissions landscape has a new feature: the ability to apply test-optional. More and more colleges and universities are offering students the option of not submitting either SAT or ACT scores as part of their admissions materials.
This option, while intended to improve the process, has created a lot of stress and uncertainty for students and guidance counselors alike, as described in this article on ways to improve the college admissions process.
So does this mean you can totally forget about the SAT and the ACT? Is applying to college without submitting any test scores likely to help or to hurt your application? In this article, we gather all the information you need to know about test-optional admissions policies, so you can make an informed decision about whether you should submit SAT scores to test-optional schools.
What is the Difference Between Test-Optional Vs. Test-Blind?
First, let’s clear up a common misconception. An increasing number of schools have been changing their admissions policies to test-optional. This does not mean, however, that test-optional schools do not consider test scores as part of the admissions process. Test-optional schools still consider SAT and ACT scores for those students who choose to submit them. A test-optional policy simply means it’s up to the applicant to decide whether to submit their test scores or not, and that the school will consider applicants who do not submit test scores.
Some other schools, on the other hand, are switching to a test-blind policy. This includes all schools in the University of California and California State University systems. A test-blind admissions policy means the school will not consider test scores for any applicant, no matter how high an applicant’s scores might be. Test-blind policies are much less common than test-optional policies, so you’ll still want to consider whether submitting scores is the right move for you.
This article about test-optional policies from the college board goes into more detail about the variations of test-optional policies one will find in college admissions today.
The History of Test-Optional Admissions Policies
For the last several decades, the SAT and, increasingly, the ACT have been a requirement for virtually every college and university in their admissions process. These tests were considered the gold standard for helping colleges evaluate applicants’ true abilities and their college readiness.
However, the landscape has also been moving very slowly toward considering more students for admission without requiring them to submit test scores. Bowdoin College was a pioneer in this transformation, and they’ve had an official test-optional policy for over 50 years now. In the wake of Bowdoin’s decision, other top liberal arts colleges have been switching to test-optional policies. There are two reasons for this. One is that some schools, especially those focusing on the liberal arts, have come to recognize that standardized tests don’t necessarily provide the most accurate assessment of a student’s potential to succeed at college and beyond. The other reason is that standardized tests are seen as typically benefitting wealthier students, who have greater access to educational and test prep resources throughout their academic careers. This means that standardized tests can perpetuate racial, economic, gender, and class inequities in higher education, with the potential for excluding top talent.
In more recent decades, other high-profile schools have gone test-optional. This includes Wake Forest in 2008 and, most notably, the University of Chicago in 2018. Last year, only 50% of college applicants submitted standardized test scores. Two years earlier, that number was 77%.
This slow movement toward test-optional policies was explosively accelerated in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the 2022-2023 application cycle, almost all colleges and universities in the US adopted test-optional policies. This means that, with a few exceptions, you can choose whether or not to submit standardized test scores for every school you’re applying to.
Do Any Schools Still Require Standardized Tests?
There are still many high-profile schools that require either the SAT or the ACT. These include:
• Georgia Tech
• All Florida public universities (including FSU and UF)
• Purdue (with certain exceptions)
• The University of Tennessee
MIT, for example, had waived the requirement for two years, but found that the tests were helpful enough in assessing student readiness that they brought back the requirement for all applicants.
Do Schools Treat Test-Optional Applicants Equally?
This is the million-dollar question.
Just because schools have made test scores optional doesn’t mean they still don’t have an unstated preference for students to submit their scores. At the most prestigious and competitive schools, the consensus is that test scores are still ultimately preferred, as the talent pool is vast and test scores offer additional information about students’ technical aptitudes and their college-readiness.
However, most schools with test-optional policies state that they try to consider each applicant’s materials holistically, without exercising a preference for students who submit test scores.
At the University of Virginia, for instance, 42% of last year’s total applicants did not submit scores, while those students made up only 28% of accepted students. This indicates that applying without test scores did not seem to favor students, on the whole. However, this does not necessarily mean that UV was giving preference to students who had submitted scores. It may be that the students who did not submit scores were weaker applicants on the whole.
Also, don’t forget that not every school views test-optional students equally. The most competitive schools typically have a plethora of students with top scores and stellar transcripts to pick from. Further, such schools are often concerned about preserving their ranking, and admitting too many test-optional students does harm schools’ positions in those rankings.
The issue of whether it will help or harm your chances to submit your SAC and ACT scores with your application materials is different for each student, based on your background, your scores themselves, the rest of your transcript, and how those factors relate to the rest of the admissions pool for the schools you’re applying to. In the end, if you and an applicant with a similar transcript are up against each other for a single spot, it may come down to who has submitted scores and who hasn’t.
Do All Students Benefit Equally from Applying Test-Optional?
One thing to consider when deciding if you should submit your SAT scores to test-optional schools is your background. Generally speaking, applying without test scores is likelier to harm the admissions chances of Caucasian, Asian American, and wealthy students. Conversely, it is likelier to help the chances of underrepresented minorities and students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
Further, students from international schools and home-schooled or non-traditionally-schooled students are less likely to benefit from withholding test scores. This is because colleges have less trust in those backgrounds to provide an adequate education than they do with public and private high schools in the US, where the quality of education is more knowable.
How Do I Know if Applying Test-Optional Is Right for Me?
The next thing to consider is where your test scores fall in comparison to applicant pool for the schools of your choice. You can google “average test scores” and “test score percentiles” for accepted students at each school. If your SAT or ACT score is above average—or above the 50th percentile—for any school, it will still certainly help your application rather than harm it to include your scores. If your scores are significantly lower, especially at the 25th percentile or below, it might be a better idea to consider withholding them.
If your scores fall between the 25th and 50th percentile, this is where the question gets a little trickier. First, ask yourself whether you’ve currently done everything you can to achieve your maximum possible score. If you earned your initial score without doing any test prep at all, there’s a good chance that committing to a rigorous test prep regimen for 2-3 months before taking the test again will significantly increase your score. In addition to working with the abundant free test prep resources on the internet, consider working one-on-one with an expert tutor like the ones we have at MyGuru. Customized, one-on-one tutoring is the gold standard for maximizing your score potential.
If your score is in that 25th-50th percentile zone, you’ll also want to consider how it relates to the rest of your transcript. If you have a weak or thin transcript—with a low GPA and few if any meaningful extracurriculars—then chances are better that decent test scores will help your application. If you have a particularly strong transcript—with a high GPA, many meaningful extracurriculars, and stellar admissions essays—then your test scores are less emphasized, and you might benefit from withholding lower scores.
Merit scholarships are a good reason to submit an ACT or SAT score.
One final thing to consider is merit-based scholarships. Many schools and universities offer merit-based scholarships to deserving students, but a lot of these programs still require test scores to apply. You should research any scholarships you may want to apply to, to figure out whether submitting your SAT or ACT scores is a necessary condition or not. Further, some scholarships will consider test-optional applications but will funnel those applicants toward a smaller financial pool, so it may keep you from getting as big a scholarship as you otherwise might.
Conclusion: should you submit your ACT or SAT score to test-optional schools?
If you had to answer the question that is the title of this blog article in one word, and could only choose one word, the best possible answer is likely yes. This is to say, yes, if you have a reasonably competitive ACT or SAT score, you should submit it.
We believe it's possible to use test-optional admissions policies to your advantage. If you have a strong application, but a relatively low test score, and want to apply to an elite university that is test-optional, go ahead and do so without submitting the ACT or SAT score. This could be the best option, because so many people are likely applying with extremely high test scores, that the school may understand your decision to not submit. On the other hand, if your score is reasonable and falls within that middle 50th percentile score range, then yes, submit. This demonstrates that on that dimension, you check the box.
However, unfortunately for those hoping the test optional trend would eliminate the need to care so much about ACT or SAT prep, it probably still makes sense to consider ACT or SAT tutoring or at least take the time to develop a comprehensive self-study test prep plan. While test-optional policies may indeed have succeeded in leveling the playing college admissions playing field a bit, they have not reduced the need for everyone applying to college to continue to take standardized tests seriously. You still need to consider how best to navigate the test prep process to maximize your chances of success in the admissions process.