Subscribe Here!

More expert advice

Testing/Test Prep

Test-Optional Colleges, Explained

Picture of Anita Gajula
By Anita Gajula on May, 10 2021 | 9 minute read

What’s the deal with all this new testing stuff?

As we all know, COVID brought many changes to 2020, including the admissions process. Many students were not able to take the long-required SAT and ACT tests due to health concerns. Testing sites had to change all their practices to accommodate new social distancing regulations and try to find proctors at schools where staff were no longer working in the buildings. Many staff, students, and parents felt uncomfortable being in closed rooms with others for fear of contracting or giving COVID-19 to others. Districts heavily restricted access to school buildings. This resulted in the closing of test sites and cancellation of many tests. Colleges were under pressure to adopt their test-optional policies given that many students could not take a test.

Many colleges and universities have long understood the biases of these tests and many were already revamping their testing requirements (more on that long history here). Admissions officers already knew there were many predictors as to whether a student would be successful at their school, and that tests were not the most valuable criteria for judgment. Many institutions have been test optional for many years, while others were in the midst of making changes in their policies and with their staff training. Because of COVID-19, colleges were under enormous pressure to make faster changes and decisions.

As a result, over half of the colleges and universities in the US significantly changed their testing requirements during 2020. Many have opted to continue these new policies for 1-3 more years, while others are making these changes permanent. The most popular terms are listed below with their meanings.


Which schools changed their policies?

This is an ever-changing list which is hard to keep track of because it requires reading press releases or visiting college websites. See FairTest for the most-up-to-date information. Know that this list is constantly changing, so look carefully if you are applying to college in the 2021-22 cycle.


What does it mean if a college is test optional? What are other popular terms being used today?

At the moment, there are 4 key terms to describe current testing admissions policies:

  1. Test Required means the SAT or ACT is required for admissions and/or merit scholarships. The Florida public schools were some of the only schools that required SAT and ACT test scores this past year for admissions purposes. The Florida schools also used SAT and ACT scores for their popular Bright Futures scholarship program. Some schools did not require test scores for admissions, but still required them for merit aid consideration. There are also certain groups of students who may be required to submit scores such as international students, homeschooled students, students in particular majors, or students in unranked school systems.
  2. Test Flexible means the college requires some type of test score, but it does not have to be the SAT or ACT. Students have the option of sending in AP scores, IB scores, or other standardized test scores for admissions purposes. In the past, NYU and Hamilton were both test-flexible schools, but recently shifted to test optional.
  3. Test Optional means a student does NOT have to submit test scores as part of their application. Students who test well relative to the school’s median scores are often encouraged to take and send in scores. Students who do not test well can take the test and then decide if they want to send in the scores. If scores are not submitted, other parts of the application may bear more weight, or the student may be asked to submit additional materials, like a supplemental essay or a graded class paper. Students are NOT penalized for not submitting scores. The majority of four-year colleges went test optional during the 2020-21 admissions cycle, and many plan to continue this policy for the foreseeable future. Please note a few schools are only test optional if the student has a minimum GPA or class rank.
  4. Test Blind/Free is the policy that states no test scores will be looked at, even if submitted. If a student accidentally submits a score or if it is listed on a transcript, the admissions office cannot use it as criteria for admitting or denying a student. Hampshire College has been test free for a few years. The entire University of California system was test blind/free during the 2020-21 admissions cycle, and all campuses are continuing this policy for the next cycle. (Note: the term test blind is seen as ableist, and so test free is preferred.)


Related: Test Optional (And What the Heck it All Means)


I’m confused. What should I do? What’s the best plan here?

The majority seems to say that if you are able to take a test at your school or nearby location in a safe manner, you should do so. Having one test under your belt may help if a school you are interested requires it for admissions or merit scholarship purposes. If you are not happy with your performance, then you can decide if you want to send it.

If you feel uncomfortable for any reason, if you must travel a long distance, or if you are unable to register, then skip it. There are many options for schools if you do not have a test score. You can also write a note in the “additional information” part of the application as to why you were unable to take a test if you desire. Just keep the note short and stick to the facts because admissions officers already have so much to read.


Under what circumstances should I send in my score? What’s a good SAT/ACT score?

This is a tricky question (and more on this discussion and crossroads here). The gist is that you should look at how your score compares to the national average, the college’s average, and against your own grades.

      1. Compare to national averages: The SAT national average is about 1000 and the ACT is about 20. If your scores are above, then that’s already a good sign.
      2. Compare to averages of the colleges you want to attend: The general feeling here has been to see if your score is in the middle 50% of scores. If so, this school might be a good target. If your score is in the top 25%, you can rest a bit easier. If your score is in the bottom 25%, you should not send in the score.
      3. Compare to your own grades: Do you have consistent grades and scores, or is there a discrepancy between your scores and grades? Colleges love consistency, so if your grades and test scores are good, then they feel reassured. If your grades are high and test scores seem low, then you might skip sending in the score. If you have low grades and high test scores, then that might be a red flag to them because they might wonder if you are applying yourself in the classroom. Good test scores rarely outweigh a low GPA, unless an explanation is provided by the student, counselor, or a recommender.

People use other testing lingo too, so can you explain those other terms?

  1. All Scores refer to campuses, like Georgetown, that require students to submit ALL scores for ALL tests taken. The college will look at lowest, highest, and in-between scores. Sometimes colleges do this to infer if a student has done additional prep between tests, to see other trends in the student’s skills, and/or to see consistency among the test scores.
  2. Score Choice is the policy that most institutions abide by these days. This means the student has the option of which scores they can submit. They do NOT have to submit certain SAT/ACT, AP/IB, or Subject Test scores, unless they choose to do so. If they have taken multiple sittings of one test, such as the SAT, they can choose which test dates they can submit.
  3. Superscore means the highest section of math and verbal are used in the admissions or merit aid process. So, if a student takes the ACT multiple times, they can use the math score from one date and the reading score from a different date to produce the highest score combination.


What are the results of all these testing changes?

We are still seeing the ramifications, but a few things have happened as a result including:

  1. Students are applying to more schools than ever. Students who had somewhat lower SAT or ACT scores than a college’s average and would not have applied before are now submitting applications.
  2. Colleges seem to be staying true to their word that test-optional means test-optional. Students without test scores are still being accepted to many colleges, including highly selective ones.
  3. Admissions offices that are new to test-optional policies are training their staff to think about the whole application better to factor in for the lack of this data point. It’s important to note that many colleges, especially the highly selective ones, were already using holistic review and not weighting test scores is a continuation of that policy. Some offices are requiring additional materials.

Blog CTAs (1)

About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counselingtest prepacademic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates. 


Recommended Articles

Subscribe to Email Updates