What Is a Test Optional College?

Over 800 U.S. colleges have eliminated the requirement to submit test scores, at least for some students. What exactly does a college mean when it announces that it is going "test optional?"

For many students, hearing that some colleges are "test optional" is music to their ears. But this does not mean they can skip taking the SAT and ACT. Many more colleges still require these test scores. But if you would rather be evaluated based on your track record, and not on an afternoon spent filling in answer bubbles, then a test-optional college may be well worth considering.

What Does Test Optional Mean?

A test-optional admissions policy means some applicants can choose not to submit SAT or ACT scores. The rules making up these policies vary from college to college.

  • Some test-optional schools will not accept or consider your test scores at all; others do require test scores under certain conditions.
  • Some require test scores only for some types of students, such as out-of-state students, students in certain majors, international students, and those applying for college-based scholarships.
  • Some may determine your test-optional eligibility using an index calculated from your GPA and SAT or ACT scores.
  • Some may ask for test scores for placement purposes or research studies.

If you are considering applying to a test-optional college, carefully review the school's test-optional admissions information before you decide not to submit test scores. You can usually find this information on the college's website.

Why Do Colleges Take This Step?

Test-optional colleges have decided that factors other than test scores are stronger predictors of a student's potential to succeed in college. Some studies show that test results do not correlate with long-term success in college. Admissions staffs also know that scores can be significantly improved through coaching. Many qualified students, however, do not have access to coaching or to highly academic high schools.

How Can You Find Out Which Schools Are Test Optional?

Thanks to advocates of test-optional admissions, you can easily find out which colleges currently place little or no emphasis on admissions tests. Go to fairtest.org, and you'll find a list maintained by The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest). You'll see a number of well-known and selective colleges and universities on this list, such as Bates, Bowdoin, George Mason, and Mount Holyoke. In fact, entire university systems have gone test optional, such as the California State University and University of Texas systems.

Another resource is CollegeData's College Match search tool, which gives you detailed information about a college's admission requirements, including whether test scores are required. Of course, you should always check with the college directly to confirm its specific test-optional rules.

How Do These Schools Evaluate Applications?

Test-optional schools consider a student's high school academic record to be most important, as do almost all colleges. They look not only at your academic GPA, but also at your academic record—particularly whether you took the most challenging courses available at your high school. Other factors include writing samples, personal interviews, letters of recommendation, and evidence of commitments outside of school.

If the admissions office asks for a "portfolio" of your most outstanding high school work, they will tell you exactly what should go into that portfolio. Contents can range from graded academic work to evidence of your extracurricular achievements.

Does It Make Sense to Submit Your Scores to Test-Optional Schools?

If your scores are strong, by all means consider submitting them. Check first to make sure the college will accept them. If it does, the college will usually state so in their admissions requirements. Bear in mind, however, that high scores do not compensate for low grades. Colleges almost always prefer a student with high grades and low scores over a student with low grades and high scores.

Are More Colleges Going Test Optional?

Test-optional colleges are definitely growing in number. In fact, the use of test scores in college admissions is a hotly debated issue. Critics of testing say that the tests fail to assess a student's potential to succeed in college. Supporters point out that as more students apply to more schools, having a standardized score as well as a student's academic record helps busy admissions officers better qualify and evaluate applicants.

Colleges That Place Less Emphasis on Test Scores

Other situations may cause a college to give test scores less weight:

  • Many colleges and large university systems pursue a related admission strategy called "holistic admissions." Admissions officers at these schools read each application closely and evaluate students not only for their academic record and SAT or ACT scores, but also for their leadership skills, extracurricular commitment, and written responses.
  • Some colleges have created alternative test policies that allow students to submit scores from Advanced Placement tests, SAT Subject Tests, or sections of the SAT or ACT.
  • If you underperform on standardized tests due to a learning disability, you might consider mentioning the situation to the admissions office. Check with your counselor first for advice.

A college's test-optional policy should be only one factor in choosing a college. But if a test-optional college is right for you, and your academic record and other factors represent you well, then such a school may be just your ticket.

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