What does test optional mean

As of the fall 2022 college admissions process, nearly 1835+ schools are test-optional

Additionally, 84+ colleges and universities are test-blind.

As rumors and partial truths swirl around these increasing numbers, students and families face some complex questions like:

  1. What does test optional mean?
  2. What is the difference between test-optional and test-blind?
  3. Should you submit your scores if you’re only applying to test-optional colleges?
  4. Do you have to test if you don’t know where you’re applying to college?
  5. Are there any advantages to testing if it’s optional?

You need reliable information about how test-optional policies affect you specifically, not just what colleges are advertising.

In this article, I’m going to help you understand what’s at stake by exploring: 

  • Both the simple and deeper meanings of test-optional
  • What test-optional means for you, especially:

    • Reasons you might still want to submit scores to test-optional schools
    • Reasons you might need to take the tests
    • If you test, whether to take the ACT or SAT
    • How to decide if your scores are good enough to submit

In the end, you may decide not to test but now you’ll be able to make the choice that's best for you, not just what seems easiest at first glance. 

You deserve every chance at success. 

Be sure you understand possible consequences before writing off your testing options simply because it would be nice to not have to test.

What Does Test Optional Mean?

When a college or university says they are test-optional, it means that ACT and/or SAT scores are not a required part of your application to attend that school. But you can still send in your scores for consideration. 

In other words, you could choose to test but not submit your scores if you had a bad testing day and don’t feel they reflect your academic ability.

Or you could choose not to test at all.

Now - before you do a happy dance about skipping the SAT and ACT - keep reading for the implications of what this actually means for students applying to college now.

Remember, college admissions standardized test score policies fall into one of three categories:

  • Test-requiring (aka you must submit scores)
  • Test-optional (aka you choose; they’ll consider them if you submit them)
  • Test-blind (aka schools won’t consider scores even if you submit them)

When the pandemic hit in 2020, many schools temporarily opted for test-optional because  ACT and SAT testing was difficult to access. 

Some of those schools are now returning to required testing, some remain test-optional, and some are becoming test-blind after trying test-optional.

How do schools evaluate applicants without test scores?

If a school is not considering standardized test scores, they’ll lean more on the other application elements. 

Think of your application like an “everything” pizza. 

If the admissions committee is looking for all the toppings (otherwise known as essays, grades, classes you took, class rank, letters of recommendation, testing) but you’re removing the pepperoni (test scores), they’ll expect the other ingredients to compensate for the missing flavor. 

For schools, this means developing new expectations and standards to compare applicants now that there might be less to go on.

For students, this means the other ingredients had better be stellar. 

But as with any challenge, you can either let it control your options or you can study the problem to figure out how to turn it into an opportunity that favors you. 

Want a major advantage over other students who don’t understand how test-optional could negatively or positively affect your chances of getting into your dream college? 

Read on.

So… What Does Test Optional Mean For You?

Is it really optional? 

Do schools inadvertently or intentionally penalize students who don’t submit scores?

Is it a big deal to skip testing when there’s so much else on your plate?

The answers vary from school to school and student to student.

Should You Test?

Reasons you might want to:

  1. Showcase your smarts.

47% of high school students graduate with an A average, so your test scores can help you stand out.

If you choose not to submit scores to a test-optional school you will still be competing against other students who did submit ACT or SAT scores.

If they’re good, definitely submit!

  1. Present serious intentions.

Test-optional schools have seen a dramatic increase in applications recently. 

While this is nice for schools, it creates more stress for students because competition is greater. 

Give the school as much information, and as many reasons to say yes to you, as possible. 

Demonstrate your interest in them.

Going above and beyond what’s required says you’re a hard worker and serious about your education. 

  1. Your desired major may still require test scores (yes, even at test-optional colleges).

Think competitive, highly selective programs like BS/MDs, accelerated studies, or entrance to graduate school. 

Research it.

  1. Some scholarship and financial aid packages may still require test scores (yes, again, even at test-optional colleges).

Once more, research is essential. 

Ask the admissions office of the school you’re interested in if you can’t locate the information on their website.

  1. Certain schools may still prefer test scores, even if they are “optional.”

This one is tough because statistics around it are new and can be somewhat slanted. 

Plus, some schools are more transparent than others regarding the importance they place on test scores. 

The fact is that a much higher percentage of students who submit test scores do get admitted. 

One might conclude then that submitting test scores means you’re more likely to get in, but that’s not necessarily true. 

It could be that students who submitted test scores more likely had high scores they were comfortable submitting, so they might have been competitive applicants who would get in anyway. 

There’s no way to know for certain.

A number of the top 20 schools, in particular, aren’t releasing this data. 

For example, Duke reported that 44% of their applicants didn’t submit test scores but didn’t release a breakdown of acceptance rates for those that did vs those that didn't.

But here are some interesting deets you can see:

Colleges that don't require the sat or act

(Source: Compass Education Group)

Something to think about.

  1. Not all schools are test-optional yet.

The Military Academies were test-flexible during the pandemic, meaning they accepted AP scores and other test scores if applicants didn’t have an SAT or ACT, but they are now back to requiring them. 

Same with MIT and certain state systems like Florida and Georgia.

If you want to attend these schools, you will have to test.

  1. Keep your options open.

Even if your college list doesn’t currently include test-required schools, having at least one set of scores allows you to adjust last-minute if new opportunities present themselves.

Imagine If you change your mind mid-senior year or discover a hidden gem you didn’t know about before.

Be ready and make adjusting easy.

Which Test Should I Take, The SAT Or The ACT?

Once you’ve decided to test, the option of which standardized test to take is your next decision.

Some students do best taking both.

Other students thrive more with one or the other. 

Nearly every school in the U.S. will accept either, so check out this video exploring the ACT vs SAT to learn the differences and pick the one that plays to your strengths.

Also, be aware that the SAT is undergoing major changes in the next few years.

Should I Submit My ACT And/Or SAT Scores?

First and foremost, I want you to be proud of your scores. 

You should feel like it’s another great piece of information that highlights your capabilities.

You shouldn’t feel forced to share something you’re not comfortable with.

For help doing your best on either test, we offer tutoring as well as online test prep courses through our sister site, Higher Scores Test PrepWhether you want a complete test prep experience or are looking to dedicate as few as 4 hours to boosting your score, we can help!

Save 10% on all of our online ACT prep courses and online SAT prep courses now by using the discount code OPTIONAL10 at checkout.

Now, if you’re wondering what specific score is “good enough” to submit though, it depends…

Some good answers exist in these two articles: what is a good SAT score and what is a good ACT score.

I always recommend using the Common Data Set of the school you want to attend (usually posted on the school’s admissions website, or you can google it) to determine your target score range.

If you can’t find their Common Data Set, reach out to the school’s college admissions office to ask along with any other questions you might have.

Should I Re-Test To Raise My Score?

Near your target and wondering whether to aim for 10-ish more points? 

Choose what will make you feel the best. 

Will it stress you out big time to have to test again? Or will it drive you crazy not having one more go at getting your score up?

In terms of admissions, anyone in the 1450+ range probably won’t gain a lot from a small score increase.

The Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke, Christoph Guttentag, said recently in an interview that “There is no meaningful difference in terms of a person’s performance at our universities between a person with a 1600 and a 1550.”

But sometimes the difference of a few extra points can mean thousands of dollars more in merit aid. Check the school’s requirements and see if you’re on the cusp where a small difference might mean a huge win. 

Then, ultimately, trust your gut.

What If I Decide Not To Test?

If none of the reasons above apply to you or you’re 100% set on only applying to test-blind colleges, then that sounds like a pretty easy decision. You don’t need to test.

If you have debilitating test anxiety (or any other completely legit reason your test scores might not represent your potential), you might conclude that testing isn’t the best course of action.

Whatever the reason, if you don’t take the ACT or SAT you’ll want to spend more time on the other pieces of your application and ensure you are using every available resource to shine out to the admissions committee.

Here are some areas to focus on:

  • Get to know your teachers so they can write detailed letters of recommendation 
  • Get involved in things you’re excited about (not things that “look good on college applications” - seriously, admissions officers can tell the difference) 
  • Get help making sure your essay and activities sections are well-written and reflect your interests
  • Take challenging classes 
  • If your grades are low, work hard to raise them. Admissions committees like either high consistency or a steady climb over time when it comes to grades.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed trying to make decisions, remember that’s exactly what we are here to help with.

Whether you’re mired in one piece of the puzzle, such as test-optional, or tackling your whole college list spreadsheet, March Consulting provides personalized tips and strategies for getting into - and paying for - your ideal school. 

Contact us here if you want to eliminate confusion, increase ease, and expand your support system to start building the epic life of your dreams.