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What Does “Test Optional” Really Mean?

Female student thinking about if SAT and ACT are optional

Are the SAT and ACT really optional?

The short answer: yes. When admissions officers at test-optional schools receive applications without test scores, they don’t scream “gotcha!” and throw the application in the trash. They are not trying to “trick” you or test whether you’re slacking.

That being said, the better question to ask is “should you submit your standardized SAT test scores?” The answer to this question is slightly more complicated.

To answer this question, it’s helpful to understand why schools might choose to go test-optional in the first place.

The reasoning behind going test-optional

Standardized test scores can help college admissions officers gauge a student’s academic readiness in comparison to other students nationally and internationally. When students are applying from all sorts of schools – boarding schools with dozens of AP course offerings, alternative high schools without standard grade reports, small rural schools with few science labs, etc. – it can be useful to have a standardized test. While an “A” at one school might mean something different from an “A” at another school, a 1600 is a 1600 for every student.

However, standardized tests are imperfect as yardsticks for academic readiness. There are always students for whom the SAT and ACT are poor reflections of their potential. For instance, take a look at Chad and Sasha:

  • Chad gets mostly Bs and Cs in school because he rarely turns in assignments and doesn’t participate in his classes. However, he could get strong grades if he put in the effort, and he’s an uncommonly strong test-taker. When the SAT rolls around, he sits for the test and gets a 1480.
  • Sasha is a straight-A student. She genuinely loves learning and spends her spare time reading and writing. However, her school provides no instruction on how to prepare for the SAT, and she doesn’t realize that many students study extensively for the SAT and take it multiple times to achieve top scores. Without more guidance, she takes the test once without having seen a practice test before. She gets a 1230.

 

These are two examples of students whose SAT scores and academic readiness are mismatched: Chad has a low GPA and high test scores, while Sasha has a high GPA and low test scores. Chad’s score will give him a boost, while Sasha’s score will harm her application.

So, why do some schools choose to go test-optional? In short, to help students like Sasha and encourage them to apply. Students with stronger GPAs and lower test scores – like Sasha – are disproportionately from underrepresented groups; they are more likely to be female, lower income, first generation college students, and/or speak a language other than English at home. (Source)

By going test-optional, many schools hope to encourage more students like Sasha to apply. They are not trying to make it “easier” to get into their schools. Rather, they are trying to remove a barrier that might discourage strong students from traditionally underrepresented groups from applying.

To submit or not to submit – that is the question

So, should you submit your standardized SAT test scores?

As an applicant, your goal should always be to put forward the best application that you possibly can. 

In order to determine whether your test scores will help or hurt you, you’ll need to reflect. Be completely honest with yourself: Do your test scores accurately reflect your academic achievement? 

There are three main possibilities:

  • Yes, my test scores and academic achievement match. (An example would be a student who has As and Bs and got a 1440.) If this is the case, you should likely submit your scores
  • No, my test scores are higher than my grades. (For example, a student with As and Bs, who got a 1530.) If this sounds like you, you should submit your scores
  • No, my test scores are much lower than my grades. (For instance, a student with As and several Bs, who got a 1230.) If you’re in this boat, consider omitting your scores.

 

You’ll notice that the main students who should omit scores are students with high GPAs and low test scores – the students like Sasha. For these students, their scores will likely drag the rest of their university application down.

Most other students should consider submitting their test scores.

Why you should submit scores if they won’t harm you

While it can be tempting to say “my score isn’tscore’s not fantastic, so I’ll just omit it – maybe it will increase my chances,” that might not be the best option.

Remember: even if you omit your test scores, universities will have other ways of gauging your academic preparedness. They will look at your coursework and see – did you take challenging courses for your school? Did you receive strong grades? How do your grades stack up against your peers? Additionally, they’ll have teacher recommendations to tell them more about your classroom performance. If your coursework and grades aren’t strong, omitting your test scores cannot magically make your university application stronger. In fact, students with applications that are not particularly strong may be worse off omitting test scores since admissions officers may scrutinize your grades in more depth or assume your scores are worse than they actually are.

If your grades and test scores are roughly in line, your test scores shouldn’t hurt you, since they won’t tell the admissions officers anything they don’t already know from the other components of your application.

A few extra considerations

Check the specific policy of each school you’re applying to! Note that some test-optional schools do require some students to submit their test scores. For instance, Mount Holyoke requires students who have been homeschooled to submit standardized test scores, while Smith College’s test optional policy is not applicable for international students. 

If you’re planning to apply for a merit scholarship at a test optional school, double-check whether or not standardized test scores are a part of the applicationFeel free to contact us to know more about SAT and ACT.