Everything You Need to Know About Test-Optional Colleges
Leslie Tucker PhD, May 22, 2021
Discover how to make test-optional admissions work in your favor
If you’re a junior in high school, you have a lot on your plate. You’re adding schools to your college list, trying to finish the year with good grades, and—perhaps most stressful of all—preparing to take the SAT or ACT.
A few years ago, taking the SAT and ACT tests was a standard part of the college admissions process. But as more and more colleges are going test-optional—both before and after COVID-19 hit—it’s understandable to feel uncertain about these exams.
Do you have a better chance of getting accepted to test-optional colleges? Should you submit your test scores or not? How will test-optional admissions policies affect who gets into selective colleges? How is the test-optional movement changing college admissions?
I’m going to address all these questions and more to give you better peace of mind as you head into college application season.
Keep reading to look at the underlying intention behind test-optional admissions, see how test-optional policies are affecting students, and learn tips on how to approach test-optional colleges.
What is the intention behind test-optional colleges?
As I see it, there are two main reasons why many groups are advocating for test-optional colleges—to promote better student access to higher education and to decrease the amount of stress put onto students.
Why test-optional colleges can increase college access
Let’s look at why the SAT and ACT exams have been accused of limiting college access in the first place.
These tests were originally developed to predict how successful students would be in college. However, recent studies have shown that students’ high school grades are actually better indicators of their college success than their test scores.
In fact, the strongest factor SAT and ACT scores predict is family wealth. Students from well-off families can afford expensive test prep options, while students from less affluent families can’t.
And as you can imagine, expensive prep courses and private tutors are effective. Students who prepare this way do indeed perform better on the SAT and ACT than their peers who have less financial means.
This leads certain groups of students to consistently test lower than their wealthy peers, despite having similar grades, intelligence, and potential for college success. Decades of testing results show that low-income, non-white, and first-generation students receive lower SAT and ACT scores.
With lower test scores, many students from these groups are denied from selective colleges and passed over for merit scholarships. This is a major reason why people advocate for test-optional admissions—so these disadvantaged students can have better college access.
Why test-optional admissions can reduce student stress
This second reason should be somewhat obvious to you. If you didn’t have to worry about preparing for and taking the SAT or ACT, the college admissions process would be a lot less stressful, right?
If you completely removed tests from the equation, you could focus more on getting good grades and spend your time engaging in meaningful extracurricular activities.
As awareness rises around the issues of student mental health, education advocates are trying to remove unnecessary stress from the college application experience. And particularly for you current juniors! After all the stress and challenges you’ve faced in the past year, why add more to your plate?
How are test-optional admissions affecting students?
So those are the two main intentions propelling the test-optional movement forward. But as we know, good intentions don’t always guarantee good outcomes. So let’s look at how students are being affected by test-optional colleges.
The test-optional impact on college access
When colleges go test-optional, more students apply. Many of these “extra” applicants are diverse, first-generation, and low-income students. Submitting their SAT or ACT scores would’ve worked against them, but test-optional admissions policies work in their favor.
So what do these students who didn’t have a chance before because of sub-par test scores actually get into selective universities? The answer is yes, more students from underrepresented backgrounds get accepted to test-optional colleges.
However, the changes aren’t as dramatic as some advocates hoped. For instance, Harvard University—which adopted a temporary test-optional policy in 2020—admitted 1% more low-income and first-generation students this year compared to last.
The percentage of admitted Black or African American students rose most dramatically—from 11% to 18%. Meanwhile, the percentage of Latinx and Asian American students remained the same.
So there is some positive movement in terms of college access to selective schools, just not as much as we anticipated there would be.
The next question to ask is, “Will these low-income students be able to afford to attend the top colleges that accept them?”
At Harvard, which offers generous need-based financial aid to students who qualify, the answer is probably yes. But not every college has the financial aid budget to meet the needs of all its admitted low-income students.
If a low-income student gets accepted to a college that doesn’t offer them enough financial aid, they’ll likely decline their offer of admission. So even though test scores are removed from the equation, the high costs of college still limit students’ college access.
The test-optional impact on student stress
I wish I could hear your answer to this question: “Do test-optional colleges give you less stress?” Hopefully you say yes, but many students I work with feel overly confused by test-optional admissions policies.
Some students are preparing for and taking the SAT or ACT as if test-optional colleges weren’t a thing. After all, most colleges will still accept test scores, so submitting strong scores should boost your admissions chances.
Other students with average or slightly low scores are in a different boat. They’re worried about whether or not to submit their scores to test-optional colleges. It’s hard to know whether scores will hurt or improve your odds of getting accepted.
I’ve talked to some students who are worried about replacing their SAT or ACT scores with other achievements, such as more AP classes or extracurriculars. Replacing testing stress with other types of stress definitely isn’t the intention of test-optional colleges, but it’s happening.
And let’s not forget, if students are applying to more colleges than they would have before, this adds more essays, more time, and more work to their already full plates.
I wish test-optional admissions automatically reduced college admissions stress, but unfortunately, that’s not what I see happening just yet.
How you should approach test-optional colleges
You’re probably going to see most colleges remain test-optional for the fall 2022 application cycle. In fact, the SAT and ACT may never be as important to college admissions as they were before the COVID-19 pandemic.
So what does this mean for you? How can you improve your admissions chances and reduce your stress levels in this test-optional environment? Here are my tips:
- Take the SAT or ACT at least once junior year and once senior year. Most testing sites are open, although space is limited. Register early to secure a spot.
- Since test scores are still somewhat useful at most colleges, prepare for the SAT or ACT well. If money is a concern, there are plenty of free prep options you can use.
- Expect moderate score increases when your retake. The average SAT score increase is 40 points, and the average ACT increase is 2.9 points. Unless you had a truly bad day the first time—you were sick or running on no sleep—it’s rare to see a 200 point jump.
- Submit your scores to test-optional colleges if they’re at or above the average scores of previously admitted classes. If they’re below average or if your scores don’t match your achievement level, you’re better off not submitting them.
- Apply to a couple of reach test-optional colleges where your scores would have disadvantaged you. Just make sure you apply to plenty of target and safety schools, too. Remember, when more students apply to selective colleges, their acceptance rates go down, making it harder for anyone to get in.
- Keep affordability in mind. If you get into a selective school, will they offer you enough financial aid to afford it? Make sure your list is balanced according to out-of-pocket costs. Use a college’s net price calculator to get an estimate of how much it will cost you.
- Don’t stress yourself out trying to get into selective colleges. You can have an amazing college experience and a stellar career without going to an elite university. Many great colleges will be happy to accept you, low test scores and all.
- Enlist a virtual college consultant like me to help! You don’t have to navigate test-optional admissions and the college process alone. There are plenty of experts who are eager to offer guidance and help you find the perfect college for you.
Test-optional colleges may be confusing, but following these tips will help you have a positive, successful college application experience nonetheless.
Final thoughts about test-optional colleges
The college admissions process is always changing—sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly. You’re experiencing a period of rapid and unexpected change, but I promise you can survive it!
Even if test-optional admissions policies aren’t perfect, you can navigate the uncertainty and make it through to the other side—where a meaningful college experience is waiting for you.
I want to hear from you! What do you think about test-optional colleges? Are you taking the SAT or ACT this spring? If so, how are you preparing? Let me know in the comments.