Back at the start of 2020, approximately 700 colleges and universities in the U.S. did not require standardized test scores as part of their application process. In 2023, more than 1800 schools have gone “test-optional.” But what does that mean for your student? Do the ACT and SAT still matter? The short answer is yes, probably. For the longer answer, we need to ask a few questions first.
Do Test Optional schools still consider my scores?
Test optional colleges and universities use disclaimers like “Students who do not submit standardized test scores will not be disadvantaged in their application process” (this one pulled directly from Harvard’s admissions website). Basically, this statement says that you won’t be penalized for not sending in your standardized test scores. It stands to reason, then, that a good test score will only be an advantage.
My dream school is test optional – should I submit my score?
To get it out of the way, yes, you should submit a good test score if you have one. (We’re happy to help you figure out what a “good” score means for you – drop us a line!) Most schools will feature their freshman profile on their admissions website. If you’re having trouble finding it, Google “[Name of school] freshman profile.” The freshman profile will show the middle 50% of ACT and SAT scores from the most recent admitted class. But just because your score is in that range doesn’t necessarily mean you should be submitting it. We talked to college admissions consultant Dr. Jennifer Martin, founder of Bell & Arch Consulting, who advises students to be cautious about submitting their scores, especially when applying to more selective schools:
“It can vary by the admissions rates at schools,” says Dr. Martin, “but for more selective schools, if my students are not in the upper half of the middle 50% [of a school’s test scores], then I advise test optional. In my opinion, if you are in the lower part of the middle 50%, your scores are not strong enough for submission and could be a detriment to your application – particularly if you have strong grades and a strong showing with APs.”
What are tests still used for?
If a school says you must submit scores, then you must submit scores. Look into their superscoring policy to see if they’ll accept your highest sections across multiple tests. Most schools will do this, but not all. Additionally, test scores are often used to determine scholarship eligibility. Scholarships that originate from a school often hinge on an applicant’s standardized test scores, and third party scholarships (from local companies, services organizations, etc.) can use the ACT and SAT as a measure of academic achievement. In addition, seven states – Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia – require test scores as part of at least one of their in-state lottery-funded scholarships.
Additionally, despite a huge increase in schools going test optional, many specific programs within universities still require standardized test scores for admission. Nursing, pre-med, and pre-law programs are the most likely to require the ACT or SAT, but any program at any school can require the scores if they so choose. If you’re interested in a specific school’s specific program, make sure you look into their testing policy!
Schools can base their admissions on whatever criteria they think is best, and many state schools have implemented a minimum GPA requirement. If your GPA is short of that bar, these colleges will often allow an ACT or SAT score in place of their required GPA. It’s rare to see a school that de-emphasizes GPA in favor of test scores, but for these metric-based schools, the scores and grades can hold equal importance.
I didn’t graduate from a typical american high school. Do I need test scores?
Because homeschooled and international students don’t typically graduate with an easy-to-convert GPA, US colleges and universities that are test optional will often require an SAT or ACT score to determine these students’ aptitude. Read the application form carefully to see if you’re in a college’s “test required” category.
I see that a school is calling itself “test blind.” What does that mean?
Test blind schools won’t consider even a perfect score as part of an application. There are only a small number of schools in this category, but it is something to look out for.
So some colleges will care more about my test than others, and some don’t care at all. Should I still take the ACT and/or the SAT?
Well, this article is coming directly from test prep experts, so of course we’ll say yes. But our reasoning behind that “yes” comes from years of experience helping students get into college. Without test scores, you’re limited to test optional schools, and even at those schools you’re missing a potentially favorable data point in your application. You’re also going to lose access to many merit-based scholarships that still use test scores to select recipients.
For current Juniors and Seniors, it’s likely that colleges you’re looking at have already decided if they’ll be test optional for your first-year candidacy. For younger students, though, it could still be up in the air. Plenty of schools removed their testing requirements on a temporary basis, and some have already rolled that rule back. In this author’s home state, for example, the University of Georgia went test optional along with many other Georgia colleges in 2021, only to return to requiring test scores for 2022.
The pandemic limited access to standardized tests, and colleges responded by making these tests optional for applicants. As a not-exactly-direct result, average SAT and ACT scores have fallen. This means a good test score is a better differentiator on a college application than it was even five years ago. A bad score won’t always hurt your chances of getting into your ideal school, but a good score will always help.
Special Thanks to Dr. Jennifer Martin of Bell and Arch Consulting for her input! If you have any questions for her, or just want to get in touch, visit her on her website: https://bellandarch.com/