Boost Your Chances for Admission at Test Optional Colleges

Although test optional policies aren’t new, COVID-19 forced many hundreds of colleges to unexpectedly shift to a test optional admissions process for the 2020 and 2021 admissions cycles. For a lot of students, this change creates more questions than answers. We’re here to help!

Will I need SAT or ACT scores if I’m applying to college for fall 2021?

More than 1,400 colleges and universities have temporarily adopted test optional policies because of the pandemic. If you’re in the class of 2021 and you can’t safely take the SAT or the ACT, you will still have plenty of options among the many colleges that won’t require test scores for admission.

Will I need test scores if I’m applying to college in 2022 or later?

Probably.

Among the hundreds of colleges that opted not to require test scores during the pandemic, future plans vary. Some schools have decided to make their test optional policies permanent. Others have opted to extend the policies to study the impacts of a test optional switch.

Many others, particularly among the nation’s most selective schools, have made it clear that they intend to resume their testing requirements as soon as the pandemic-related barriers to testing are no longer an issue. For example, Yale’s test optional announcement advised students in the class of 2022 and beyond to plan to submit test scores; meanwhile, Cornell urged students to submit SAT or ACT scores if possible despite the test optional policy.

Although it is likely that the number of schools with test optional policies will remain higher than it was pre-pandemic, students in the class of 2022 and beyond should keep their options open by preparing for the SAT or ACT—otherwise they risk excluding themselves from applying to a lot of great schools.

Does test optional REALLY mean test optional?

Not really. In the current pandemic-oriented climate, colleges are more likely to be forgiving about a lack of test scores, but historically speaking, test scores play an important role in admissions even at test optional schools.

Test optional is NOT test blind.

It’s important to remember that test optional policies and test blind policies are very different. Test optional policies mean that you can apply without scores but that the school will still look at your scores if you submit them. Test blind policies mean that scores don’t matter—the school won’t even look at them.

So if you’re applying to a test optional school, remember: they still look at test scores.

Most applicants at test optional schools submit SAT or ACT scores.

According to Defining Access, a 2018 study of 28 test optional schools, only about one-fourth of applicants chose not to submit test scores. (This trend is supported by case studies from other cohorts of test optional schools.)

Colleges prefer to have more information rather than less information. Your test scores offer an additional data point for schools to consider when making admissions decisions, and their preference for this data is clear: students who don’t submit test scores have lower acceptance rates than those who do. In fact, across the schools examined in the Defining Access study cited above, students who didn’t submit test scores had acceptance rates that were 5 to 15% lower compared to students who sent scores in.

Financial aid may hinge on your test scores.

At some test optional schools, merit-based aid is only offered to students who submit test scores. At those that do offer merit aid to non-submitters, many reserve their largest aid packages for those students who offered test scores. For example, while Hofstra University considers all students for merit aid, only those who submit test scores are eligible for the school’s largest scholarships.

How does a test optional policy change the admissions process?

In annual surveys, the vast majority of college admissions officers cite SAT or ACT scores as being one of the most important factors in admission. (Read more about why test scores are important to admissions officers here.) In the absence of that critical data point, the usual admissions process looks a lot different.

Other factors become exponentially more important.

Removing test scores as a primary factor for admission changes the calculus of admissions decisions, making all of the other college admissions factors far more important. Grades, course rigor, essays, extracurricular involvement, and recommendation letters all carry more weight under a test optional policy.

Test scores probably won’t break your chances—but they could turn a maybe into a yes.

Selective schools that rely on test scores in the admissions process often use a combination of GPA and test scores to filter out underperforming applicants early in the review process. In other words, under a test required policy, your test scores might break your application if they are far too low.

Under a test optional policy, however, test scores are more likely to come into play later in the application review process. After reviewing all applications without test scores, those students who are in the “maybe” pile will then get a second round of review that includes test scores. A good SAT or ACT score could be the factor that puts your application above similarly qualified students who didn’t submit test scores.

How do I boost my chances for admission at a test optional school?

The guidelines for admissions success at test optional schools aren’t all that different from those at any other school.

Get good grades in tough classes.

Test optional schools tend to weight grades and course rigor more highly than those who include test scores in their calculations. Make sure to take challenging classes and maintain the highest GPA possible. (Read more about how grades and course rigor influence college admissions here.)

Submit amazing essays.

Because the admissions process at these schools tends to be more holistic than the process at schools that require test scores, your essays carry even more weight. Plan to spend plenty of time—weeks or months—crafting stellar admissions essays for these schools. And remember: many test optional schools request several essay supplements, so you’ll need to plan ahead to get everything done on time.

Pursue your interests and stay involved outside of school.

How you choose to spend your free time says a lot about who you are—and colleges are admitting people, not merely students. Be sure to remain involved in your extracurricular activities, seek out leadership opportunities, and develop your interests.

Prepare for and take the SAT or ACT.

Although the test scores aren’t a required part of the application, most applicants at test optional schools will submit SAT or ACT scores. Submitting scores boosts your chances for admission and for financial aid. After all: test optional does not mean test blind!

COLLEGE ROADMAP

FRESHMAN

Look at the classes available at your school and make a plan to take challenging courses throughout all four years of high school.

Focus on maintaining high grades.

Explore extracurricular opportunities.

SOPHOMORE

Continue to earn good grades in challenging courses.

Make sure your extracurricular activities reflect your interests and passions.

Plan to take the SAT or ACT even if you think you’ll only apply to test optional schools.

JUNIOR

Take the PSAT to compete for the National Merit Scholarship.

Prepare for the SAT or ACT. Test scores are important even at test optional schools.

Continue to earn top grades in challenging courses.

Establish relationships with teachers who might write your recommendation letters next fall.

SENIOR

Start your admissions essays during the summer. Leave plenty of time to craft amazing essays.

Finalize your SAT or ACT scores.

Continue to take challenging courses and maintain strong grades.

Seek leadership opportunities in extracurriculars.