What Does Test-Optional Really Mean?

Student taking a standardized test

Most U.S. colleges took a long time to accept one simple reality: some students simply don’t test well. In the past, many schools used fairly narrow criteria to evaluate their applicants. Some made admissions decisions largely based on GPA and test scores alone. Fortunately, this is now beginning to change. 

These days, schools increasingly understand that there’s more than one recipe for a stellar student — and that perfect SAT scores aren’t always a necessary ingredient. Hundreds of schools now offer a test-optional admissions process. 

If you’re one of the many smart, hard-working students who don’t test well, you might hear the words “test-optional” and imagine the sound of angels singing. But what is test-optional, really? Should you still submit SAT or ACT scores even if a school doesn’t require them? Will admissions officers evaluate you differently if you don’t have standardized test scores? Here’s what you need to know.

What does test-optional mean? 

If a college application is “test-optional,” it means admissions officers will consider your test scores if you submit them, but scores aren’t required for admission. So, if you plan to take the SAT or ACT test, you’re welcome to send in your scores if you’re proud of them. But if you didn’t take the tests — or don’t feel they paint an accurate picture of your academic talents — you’re welcome to leave them out. 

Keep in mind that test-optional is different from “test-blind” or “test-flexible.”

  • Test-blind: With a test-blind policy, admissions officers won’t look at your standardized test scores, even if you do send them in as part of your application. (Note that test-blind schools are less common than test-optional schools. Right now, test-monitoring organization FairTest only reports about 80 test-blind colleges in the U.S.)
  • Test-flexible: If a school has a test-flexible admissions policy, you do have to submit some kind of test score — but you get to choose which one. Test-flexible schools usually accept ACT, SAT, IB, and AP test scores.

Why are more schools test-optional now? 

Though some colleges began adopting test-optional admissions before 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic made them popular. Test-optional policies became a way of accommodating students who had issues taking, retaking, and even preparing for standardized tests during that time. 

That said, test-optional policies have benefits that extend beyond accommodating students in extreme circumstances. Here are a few of the reasons more and more schools are transitioning to test-optional admissions.

A holistic approach to admissions

Test-optional colleges focus on a holistic approach to evaluating applicants. They understand that a student’s potential can’t be solely determined by their test scores. By removing the emphasis on standardized tests, colleges can assess an applicant’s overall academic performance, extracurricular involvement, personal achievements, and other factors that contribute to their potential for success.

Increased access and diversity 

Test-optional policies promote access and diversity in college admissions. Standardized tests can sometimes be a barrier for students from underprivileged backgrounds, as they may not have access to test prep resources or the means to pay for multiple test attempts. By making testing optional, colleges open the door for a more diverse pool of applicants, ensuring that talented students are not excluded based solely on their test scores.

Focus on personal strengths and achievements 

Without the pressure of standardized tests, students can concentrate on showcasing their unique strengths and achievements in other areas. This encourages them to delve deeper into their passions, pursue meaningful extracurricular activities, and highlight their accomplishments outside of a test score. Colleges can then get a more comprehensive picture of an applicant’s abilities and potential to contribute to their campus community.

Reducing test anxiety

Standardized tests can be a significant source of stress and anxiety for many students. By removing the requirement to submit test scores, test-optional colleges aim to alleviate some of this anxiety and create a more supportive environment. Students can focus on their academic achievements and personal growth rather than feeling overwhelmed by preparing for a single test.

How will my application be judged without test scores?

Many colleges now recognize that standardized tests aren’t the only indicator of a good student. That said, scores still provide valuable information. So, even if an application is test-optional, you may still benefit from submitting your scores. 

If you choose not to submit scores, admissions officers will place more weight on your GPA, extracurriculars, high school coursework, class rank, college essays, and other parts of your application. Note that admissions officers may look to test scores to gather more information about your abilities if those other components aren’t absolutely stunning. Say the non-score components of your application are excellent, however – you may be able to present yourself as a compelling candidate without the benefit of test scores.

Is test-optional really test-optional?

If a school offers a test-optional admissions policy, they cannot penalize you for choosing to omit your test scores. However, if you have decent scores, it can still be helpful to submit them. That’s because if you don’t submit scores, the other parts of your application will be weighted more heavily. 

It’s also worth considering the statistics. The majority of accepted students still tend to be those who submit test scores. According to data collected by college prep company Compass Group, students who share their scores still tend to be more likely to get admitted to some of the nation’s most selective schools, including Notre Dame, Emory, and Georgia Tech.

Also keep in mind that some test-optional schools may still have testing requirements for certain types of students. Some use standardized test scores to make decisions about merit scholarships, final course enrollment, and financial aid. Other schools require scores for nontraditional students, including homeschooled students or international students who may not have standardized or equivalent grades to share. If you’re applying to a particularly selective major, you may be required to submit test scores as well.

All that said, the short answer is yes: test-optional really does mean test-optional, at least for normal admissions. Just be sure to read the fine print on your school’s admissions website (or give the office a call) to make sure testing requirements don’t apply to your specific circumstances.

Which schools are test-optional? 

According to FairTest, about 1,900 U.S. colleges currently offer a test-optional admissions process — including some top schools like Harvard, Stanford, University of California, Duke University, and Boston College. (You can view a complete list of these schools at FairTest.org.) 

This number could continue to rise in the future as more schools realize the benefits of test-optional admissions. Many colleges now recognize that prioritizing test scores only benefits certain types of students. Test prep is a huge industry, and SAT and ACT tutors and prep materials can be very expensive. This may give wealthier students an edge. So, in an effort to make college admissions more equitable, more schools may be moving away from test-required admissions in the future. In fact, according to Forbes, more than 80% of four-year schools now offer test-optional admissions. 

If you’re not sure whether your school is test-optional, check the admissions website, which should provide extensive detail about the application process. If you’re still not sure, you can look up the school at FairTest.org or contact the admissions department.

Should I apply test-optional? 

Just because a school offers a test-optional application doesn’t mean all students apply this way. According to data collected by higher education consultancy College Transitions, about 50% of students now apply test-optional, but at many schools, about 70% of admitted students included test scores on their applications. Exact acceptance rates can depend on the college, but it appears that test scores may still be a valuable part of the application process. 

Keep in mind that the apparent preference for test scores in admissions data may be due to correlation, not causation. After all, many score-submitting applicants just happen to be strong, well-rounded students — and the data doesn’t necessarily indicate that a school has an active preference for scores vs. no scores. However, it appears that submitting scores may not hurt.

Deciding whether to apply test-optional will depend on your scores and the school you’re applying to. It’s generally best to take standardized tests even if you suspect your scores won’t be outstanding. That way, if you don’t get into your top-choice schools — but later find a testing-required college that might be a good fit — you’ll have some scores in your back pocket that you can use to apply. Plus, it’s often best to submit scores with your application even if they’re not top-percentile. The more information an admissions office has about you, the easier it will be for them to make a decision.

Once you take your tests, check your college’s admissions website to see if it discloses the average test scores of accepted students. If your scores are above this average, it may benefit you to submit them. If they’re well below average but the rest of your application is very strong, you may want to consider applying test-optional. 

Pay less for college with Going Merry 

Deciding whether to apply test-optional is just one of many decisions you’ll have to make during the college admissions process. The good news is that you don’t have to make all these decisions alone. Going Merry offers a number of resources to streamline your journey. Compare schools, learn how to get the most financial aid possible, and get personalized scholarship matches delivered to you. Find out how much you could save. Sign up for free today. 

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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.


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