What’s all the fuss about “test optional”?

By Pat Davis

As I write this in April 2020, many students are wondering what it really means when colleges announce they will be “test optional” for the Class of 2021.  Some colleges are even announcing that option for years into the future.  But, how does that change application strategy for rising seniors?  Should you plan to skip the SAT or ACT, and send your application without test scores?

First, students should be aware that “test optional” is not the same as “test blind”.  In other words, while many colleges are test optional for admission, they are NOT test optional for many other programs, such as:

  • Scholarships, especially merit aid
  • Admission to honors programs
  • Admission to more competitive majors, such as engineering, computer science, etc
  • Accelerated dual degree programs, such as BS/MD programs
  • Home schooled students
  • International applicants
  • DI and DII athletes (at this point, NCAA has not released information about future requirements, but right now, they are still requiring the SAT or ACT)
  • Most test optional colleges still recommend or encourage students to send their SAT/ACT scores.  Now you know why!

Additionally, many test optional colleges have additional requirements for students who choose not to send scores, such as additional essays, projects, etc. 

Very few colleges are truly test blind; in other words, they actually delete any scores sent by students prior to being reviewed.  One example is Hampshire College in Massachusetts. There are no “nationally known” colleges that are test blind.

Another category, called “test flexible” is available at some colleges.  These colleges will accept substitute tests, including SAT subject tests, AP and IB test scores. But, of course, those scores must be very strong for the applicant to be competitive for selection.

So, how will “test optional” likely affect admissions for the Class of 2021?  How will students who choose not to send scores be evaluated?  It’s a very complex question, but in general, all other parts of the application will carry more weight in the admissions process.  GPA, course rigor, extracurriculars, essay – all of these will have to be even stronger to make up for the lack of SAT/ACT test scores.  The most competitive students will definitely STILL TAKE THE SAT OR ACT, AND WILL STILL SUBMIT THEM!  Instead of less competition, there will be more competition. So, those students who choose not to send in a competitive test score could be at an even bigger disadvantage.  Colleges will make assumptions and conclude that the student had a poor SAT/ACT, and chose not to submit the test.  This has always been an issue with test optional, and this will only be exaggerated now.

A 2018 study of test optional colleges showed the following:

  • 25% of students did not submit test scores
  • This group included a higher number of minorities, first generation college students, and low-income students
  • Applications increased by 11-29% as compared to not test optional
  • The more selective colleges became even more selective
  • Non-submitters (students who did not send test scores) were often admitted at lower rates.

So, should you prepare and take the SAT/ACT, work hard for your best score, and send it with your application?  In general, I strongly recommend it!  Here are the students who I recommend take the SAT/ACT, and send your scores:

  • If you have a competitive score for the college you’re applying to
  • If you are hoping for merit-based scholarship
  • If you are hoping for a better financial aid package
  • If you are considering applying to Honors Programs
  • If you are applying to highly selective majors
  • If you are a student athlete

So Class of 2021 – prep and be ready for take the SAT starting in August!!  SAT has announced that they will offer the SAT every month starting in August.  I expect many colleges will extend their application deadlines for Early Action and Early Decision, so students should still have time to retake the SAT. But, if you wait and take it for the first time in October, you will be cutting it close.  Don’t invite the added stress!  Plan to take it in August!!

The college admission landscape is changing all the time and new policies and timelines are emerging daily. My advice: maintain your application timeline just as if nothing has changed, and plan to submit in November!