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What Does “Test Optional” Mean?

By Lisa Freedland

Lisa Freedland is a Scholarships360 writer with personal experience in psychological research and content writing. She has written content for an online fact-checking organization and has conducted research at the University of Southern California as well as the University of California, Irvine. Lisa graduated from the University of Southern California in Fall 2021 with a degree in Psychology.

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Reviewed by Bill Jack

Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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Posted: February 5th, 2022
What Does “Test Optional” Mean?

During the pandemic, many colleges have adopted test-optional policies regarding college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT. In fact, over 1,800 schools are currently listed as test-optional (either temporarily or permanently) according to Fair Test. There’s no denying that this admissions policy has taken the world of higher ed by storm, but what exactly does test-optional mean? In this guide, we’ll break it all down. 

Also see: College admissions guide for low test takers

What is test-optional?

Test-optional colleges let their applicants decide whether or not to include their SAT and/or ACT scores in their application. It’s important to know, however, that the phrase “test-optional” doesn’t mean the exact same thing at every college. Let’s talk about the different variations of test-optional policies:

Test-optional for all 

These colleges let all applicants (including out-of-state, homeschooled, and international students) decide for themselves whether to submit test scores. These schools will still consider your test scores if you submit them, but they usually won’t penalize you if you don’t. 

If your scores are on the lower end, withholding them might be your best option. 

See also: SAT/ACT scores: to send or not to send?

Test-optional for some

Some schools require test scores from applicants whose GPA or class rank doesn’t meet minimum requirements. However, test scores may be required from international or homeschooled students regardless of their GPA. The logic here is that U.S. colleges know less about the curriculum and grading standards implemented by foreign schools and home schools. As a result, they must rely on SAT and/or ACT scores to aid in their admissions process. 

Test-flexible

These schools let students decide which type of test results they’d like to include in their application. Applicants are still welcome to submit their SAT or ACT scores, but they may also submit other test scores in place of these exams. Options include an International Baccalaureate exam or an Advanced Placement test.

Test-blind

Test-blind colleges do not even accept standardized test scores from their applicants. While not as common as test-optional, a growing number of colleges are adopting this policy. For instance, the entire University of California school system is currently test-blind. 

Don’t miss: What is a high SAT score?

First of all, should I even take the SAT? 

The rapid spread of test-optional policies has resulted in a lot of students wondering if they should even take the SAT and/or ACT in the first place. The short answer here is yes. Regardless of whether you end up submitting your test scores, it doesn’t hurt to go ahead and take one or both of these exams. Once you have your test results, then you can decide whether or not you’d like to include them in your application. 

If you get the score you were hoping for, it can help you stand out among other applicants. It can even help offset a low GPA. Not to mention, some test-optional schools use standardized tests as criteria for awarding merit-based scholarships. But if you don’t get the score you wanted, there’s no pressure for you to include it in your applications. In the end, there’s really no downside to taking the SAT and/or ACT. 

Should I send in my test scores? 

When weighing the benefits of test-optional applications, the first step is to examine the average test scores of the schools you’re applying to. If your score meets or exceeds the average score (50th percentile) of students from the previous class, you should go ahead and send in your results. If your score falls in the 25th percentile or below, you should probably not include your test results. 

To give you an example, let’s say you’re applying to UNC Chapel Hill. The middle 50% of incoming students at this school scored between 1350-1500 on the SAT. If your score is within this range or above, you should include your exam results. But if your score falls significantly below this range, you should exclude your results. 

And remember that it’s not an all-or-nothing situation. You may end up submitting your test scores to some colleges, but not to others. It all depends on how your exam results stack up to the various colleges you’re applying to. 

Also see: How to improve your SAT score

What happens if I don’t send in my test scores? 

If you decide to exclude your test scores from your application, here’s a couple things to keep in mind:

  1. You will still be given a fair shot at admission, but the other parts of your application will probably be scrutinized more heavily. Make sure you’re confident in your GPA, extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, and personal essay if you decide to exclude your test scores. 
  2. You might be put at a disadvantage for winning scholarships. Even at test-optional schools, standardized test scores are sometimes considered when awarding merit-based scholarships. Be sure to check all scholarship requirements before making a decision regarding your test scores. 
  3. Keep in mind that while the College Board does not recommend that high schools include test scores on high school transcripts, not all schools follow that advice. Double check that your high school does not include your scores on your transcript if that is not your intention. 

Related: Finding the perfect test prep tutor

Final thoughts 

Ultimately, test-optional policies place more power in the hands of the applicants. Now that less importance is being placed on standardized testing, students are no longer bound to their SAT and ACT scores. These days, it’s a matter of whether or not your test score strengthens your application. If it does, that’s great! But if your score isn’t where it should be or it doesn’t reflect your academic potential, there’s no need to share. Just make sure that you’re not missing out on scholarship opportunities by excluding your scores. Good luck!

Also see: Scholarships360’s free scholarship search tool

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