Test-Optional: Should you still take the SAT® or ACT®?

The phrase “test optional” has been in the news a lot in 2020. Many colleges adopted a temporary test optional policy in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some permanently went test optional this year. It’s no surprise, therefore, that students are left wondering whether taking the SAT or ACT is still worthwhile.

The short answer: YES!

If you’re in the class of 2022 or later…

You should absolutely plan to take the SAT or ACT.

Most colleges will require tests after this year.

Do not assume that test optional policies adopted in response to COVID-19 will continue beyond this year. After all, in a recent survey of college admissions officers, 82.8% identified SAT or ACT scores as important. In fact, test scores consistently rank as the most important factor for admission after grades and course rigor.

What’s more, many colleges that adopted temporary test optional policies due to the COVID-19 pandemic made it very clear that they intend to resume their testing requirements next year. Consider, for example, Yale’s test optional announcement, which clarified that “students who will apply to enroll in Fall 2022 or later should plan to complete the ACT or SAT by the appropriate deadlines.”

Even at test optional schools, good test scores are important.

Strong test scores will help your application even at schools that continue to practice test optional policies beyond the pandemic. Just look at how test optional policies have worked out at schools that stopped requiring tests prior to 2020.

  • The University of Chicago went test optional in 2018. In its first test-optional admissions season, the University of Chicago’s average SAT score for admitted applicants went UP by 15 points, and its admission rate dropped from 7.2% to 5.9%. In other words, while it got easier to apply to the University of Chicago, it definitely didn’t get easier to get in.
  • The majority of applicants to competitive test optional universities and colleges still submit SAT/ACT test scores. In a 2020 panel led by representatives from Bates, George Washington, George Mason, Sarah Lawrence, and Susquehanna—all test optional schools—multiple case studies showed that 60% or more applicants submit test scores. At Wake Forest University, which adopted a test optional policy in 2008, making it among the first large universities to do so, about 70% of applicants still submit test scores.
  • At test-optional colleges, test scores are often reviewed last. They are often the extra edge that can be the difference between acceptance and denial among similarly strong applicants.

Beyond the benefit for admission, good test scores can also help with scholarships and course placement. Even at schools that are test-optional, test scores are often used to identify scholarship candidates, and some schools use SAT Subject Test scores for course placement purposes.

If you’re a senior…

If you CAN take the SAT or ACT, you should.

Some schools that have adopted temporary test-optional policies have also indicated that they still prefer to see test scores from applicants when feasible. Cornell, for example, included in its test-optional announcement that SAT “results will continue to demonstrate preparation for college-level work” and indicated that “the ACT or SAT might still be a meaningful differentiator in particular for students who live near or attend a school that will be open, and where testing will be offered, or who live near a testing center that will be offering more testing seats or dates than they did in 2019; and have not experienced lost income…or other significant new hardships or losses during 2020.”

In other words, “if you can take the test, we want to see your scores.”

If you CAN’T take the SAT or ACT, it’s okay.

Your chances for admission won’t be harmed if you’re unable to submit scores.

If you don’t feel safe, don’t take the test. We will not advocate that students should take risks with their health or the health of their loved ones in order to get a good test score. Read about the safety precautions being taken at your local testing centers, and make the decision that is best for you and your family.

If you can’t register because there just aren’t enough spaces left, the decision is out of your hands. You won’t be punished for not being able to access a testing center.

If your best scores are still sub-par, it’s probably best to simply apply test-optional. If your best test scores—despite thorough preparation and good faith effort—are below the 50% mark for your chosen colleges, your application will most likely benefit from omitting those scores.

But remember: it’s NOT okay to omit scores because you just didn’t want to bother. As an applicant, it is your duty to put forth your best effort. If you CAN’T take the test, that’s one thing. But don’t choose not to take the test because it just seems like too much work to prepare.

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