Does Test-Optional Really Mean Optional?

It’s common to worry that not submitting test scores will be held against you in the admissions process. Traditionally, schools that go test-optional are earnest in their policy. However, colleges going test-optional in response to the pandemic can be divided into two groups: the truly test-optional and the reluctantly test-optional. I  advise students to take the test when possible.  If you don’t do well, you don’t have to show your scores.


When Is It a Smart Idea to Take the ACT or SAT?

You’re pursuing merit- or need-based aid: Many scholarships are tied to standardized test scores, either formally or informally, so a high score can give you a leg up for both merit- and need-based aid.  Students hoping to secure scholarships should take the tests when possible. Even students who qualify for fee waivers should take the tests because there’s no financial investment and there’s potential for a financial reward. If you’re unsure if test scores are considered in the aid you’re targeting, it’s best to contact the admissions office or scholarship-granting organization.

You plan to play a college sport: The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has waived its minimum-score requirement for the 2020–21 academic year. However, as of August 2020, the change only applies to students who graduated from high school in 2020. Anyone graduating in 2021 should plan to take the ACT or SAT for now. Beyond fulfilling the NCAA requirement, your score can give you an advantage if you’re hoping for an athletic scholarship.

Your score will enhance your application: For anyone with a lower GPA than their true ability, a great test score shows them in a much better light. Students who may get a weak letter of recommendation, those who are introverted or do not have a lot of extracurricular engagement … can benefit by getting a great test score. 

When Is It Not Worthwhile to Take the SAT or ACT?

Your practice score is low: Scores that undermine your high school performance usually aren’t worth submitting. If your ACT or SAT scores are less than the 25th percentile for admitted students, do not submit them unless you need them for a scholarship or other requirement. Instead, it’s worth finding other ways to strengthen your application. Focus on an issue you are passionate about. You can showcase how you are finding solutions to problems you see in the world instead of spending hours preparing and relearning test material.

You’re worried about COVID-19: If you or a member of your family is in a high-risk group for COVID-19 and you’re worried about sitting for the test, it’s not worth taking it. Ultimately, scores are just one piece of the admissions pie: A good score will help you, but it’s not everything. Be prepared to elaborate on why you were unable to take the ACT or SAT in your application. Consider including a written statement about your decision. A thoughtful, well-written piece could tip the scales in your favor.

What’s Next for the SAT and ACT?

While the test-optional trend shows no signs of slowing down, it’s unlikely the exams will become extinct. The tests allow colleges to easily compare students from schools that vary wildly in academic rigor. They also provide colleges, especially ultra-selective ones that receive more applications than they can manage, a way to create a cutoff point.

Ultimately, the decision about testing is like many decisions in the college application process — a personal one. To make your choice, factor in the requirements of the schools and scholarships where you’re applying, your safety comfort levels, your application’s strengths and your testing abilities.