As you’re scouring college admission websites, you may have noticed that many universities are going test optional. That may come as a surprise: for decades, standardized exams such as the ACT have been required components of U.S. college admissions. Schools use your test scores—in addition to other parts of your application—to gauge how prepared you are for the rigors of college academics.
If these tests are such a conventional part of the admissions process, then what does test optional mean? Is the ACT optional? Which portions of the ACT are optional? Who exactly is it optional for, and who is required to take it? And if the ACT isn’t mandatory, are there reasons you should consider taking the test and submitting your scores anyway?
Let’s dig deep so you can decide whether you should be registering for the ACT as you prepare for the college application process.
Is the ACT Optional?
The answer is it depends. We’re not trying to be coy; it’s actually a complicated issue.
First and foremost, you should know that 13 states actually require you to take the ACT to graduate from high school. So regardless of your educational plans after graduation, you’ll still need to complete the ACT to earn your diploma. If you’re unsure, it’s best to discuss with your high school counselor whether you’re required to complete the ACT to meet graduation requirements.
The majority of community colleges and vocational (aka trade or technical) schools do not require the ACT; at those institutions, your high school diploma or GED will be the only credential required for acceptance. However, some community colleges still require standardized test scores for admission and/or for course placement (e.g., assessing whether you need to take first-year composition or whether you should enroll in algebra or calculus). Also, keep in mind that you may need to take the ACT at some point if you plan to later transfer to a four-year college that requires the test.
As of this writing, 1,839 accredited colleges and universities that offer bachelor’s degrees are test optional or test free, so the ACT is not mandatory for admission to those schools. But hundreds of other schools—including highly selective institutions like MIT, Georgetown University, and Georgia Tech—still require test scores. Also, the ACT may not be a mandatory part of your application at some test-optional institutions, but those same schools may still require you to submit your scores for course placement.
You should also know that some colleges have additional requirements if you decide not to submit your ACT scores, such as interviewing with an admissions counselor or submitting supplemental materials. Those materials might entail additional recommendation letters or a portfolio of your academic or creative work. That’s why it’s crucial to review each college’s admissions policy closely. It’s best to take your first ACT as early as your sophomore year, so check each university’s admissions website before then so you know what to expect and can prepare accordingly.
Which Portion of the ACT Is Optional?
When registering for the ACT, you have two options: the ACT and the ACT with Writing. The former is a multiple-choice test; the latter is that same test plus a 40-minute pencil-and-paper essay that asks you to develop your opinion on a particular issue.
So we know that the ACT is sometimes optional, sometimes not. But is the ACT essay optional?
Generally speaking, the ACT with Writing is optional. Many universities won’t bother looking at your ACT Writing scores, or else your results on that part of the exam will have little impact on your application as a whole. However, some colleges and universities either recommend or require you to take the ACT with Writing. If you’re applying to any number of these institutions, you should register for the ACT with Writing. If you’re unsure of whether a school requires the essay part of the test, search online for [college name] ACT with writing or [college name] ACT essay, or ask your friendly admissions counselor at that school.
Test-Optional Admissions Defined
College admissions generally fall into one of four categories: test required, test optional, test flexible, or test blind.
When a school has a test-required admissions policy, then submitting either your ACT or SAT is a mandatory part of their application process. Luckily, you can take either exam more than once, and you can also decide which scores to submit, so this is not a one-and-done situation; you can register, prepare, take the test two or more times, and send in only the results that reflect your best performance.
If a college is test optional, that means your ACT test scores are an optional part rather than a requirement of your application. If you apply to a school that is test optional, you can choose to submit your ACT results, and the admissions staff will review your scores alongside elements, such as your transcripts, college essay, and recommendation letters. Otherwise, you can take the exam but still withhold your scores if they don’t accurately reflect your skills and abilities.
You could even consider applying exclusively to test-optional schools, which would give you the option of not taking the ACT to begin with. However, you’ll want to weigh your options carefully before you choose that route. We’ll discuss which factors to consider later in this article.
Another type of admissions policy is called test flexible. This kind of application allows you to submit scores from alternative exams in place of the ACT, such as the SAT, SAT Subject Tests, AP Exams, and IB Exams. Note that being test flexible means you are still required to take at least one kind of standardized test to meet the requirements. But because each exam assesses different capabilities, the advantage of test-flexible applications is that they allow you to showcase your individual skill set.
Then there are the admissions policies that are test free or test blind. In this case, the university will not consider any of your standardized exam scores even if you submit them. This kind of admission is relatively rare, though: only around 80 institutions currently offer this policy—although some of those schools may eventually create their own proprietary admissions tests.
The Purpose of Test-Optional Admissions
Bowdoin College was the first college to eliminate standardized tests as an admissions requirement in 1969. During the next five decades, more than 1,000 other universities followed suit.
But it was the COVID-19 pandemic that made the concept of test-optional admissions splash across headlines. As ACT testing centers locked down and exam administrations were canceled, college after college was forced to offer test-optional admissions. But when those policies proved to be popular among prospective students, their families, high school counselors, and college admissions officers, many universities decided to hop on the bandwagon and stop requiring test scores as part of their applications.
Why is this kind of application process so popular?
Education experts argue that test-optional policies help make college admissions more inclusive. Eliminating score requirements opens up access to students from more diverse backgrounds, including applicants from lower-income families and underserved racial and ethnic groups. Because these students may not be able to afford extracurricular test-prep classes, individual tutoring, or retaking a standardized test multiple times, they may have comparatively lower exam scores even though they possess skills and strengths not reflected in their ACT results.
Many critics also argue that standardized tests do not effectively assess students’ preparation for college or their likelihood of graduating with a bachelor’s degree. This is why so many colleges prefer to consider applicants’ high school grades, extracurricular participation, leadership activities, college essays, interviews, and recommendation letters rather than standardized test scores.
Eligibility for Test-Optional Admissions
A university’s test-optional policy usually applies to all or the majority of its applicants. But one thing to keep in mind is that many schools limit which students can take advantage of test-optional admissions. At some schools, for example, international, out-of-state, and/or homeschooled students are still required to submit their test scores. Other colleges will exempt applicants from the ACT only if those students meet a minimum GPA or have earned a specific class rank (e.g., they are graduating in the top 5% or 10% of their class).
Because these policies vary so widely, don’t forget to review each college’s admissions policies closely to see whether you’re eligible to go test optional.
Which Colleges are ACT Optional?
Lists of institutions with test-optional admissions are readily available online. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, is just one fairly comprehensive and frequently updated resource. Just be sure that you’re looking at the most updated version of any given list because universities have been known to adapt their admissions requirements from year to year.
For instance, although more than 1,400 colleges have committed to making their test-optional policies permanent, many schools will forego test scores only temporarily (e.g., for one to three years). And while some schools have already started requiring the ACT again, several never offered the test-optional policy in the first place.
After consulting such lists, you can research specific schools’ policies online using the search term Is [college name] test optional? Then, connect with the colleges themselves, either by perusing their admissions pages or chatting with their admissions staff and asking, “Are ACT scores required for the class of 2023?”—or whichever class applies to you. It may seem unnecessary to double- and triple-check, but it’s better to be safe and prepared when it comes to fully understanding each school’s admissions requirements.
Is the ACT Optional at Top-Tier Schools?
Even before COVID-19 changed the college-admissions landscape, a large number of selective liberal arts colleges and top-ranking research universities had stopped requiring the ACT for admission. Post-pandemic, even some of the most distinguished institutions in the country, including Ivy League colleges and the so-called public Ivies, decided to go test optional. And as of the 2022–2023 admissions cycle, premier schools such as Boston University, Brown, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Princeton, Penn, and Yale had stopped mandating the submission of standardized test scores. Other prestigious schools, such as Columbia, Cornell, and Stanford, have announced that they will continue their test-optional admissions through at least the 2023–2024 school year, and Harvard applicants can go test optional through 2026.
Regardless of these test-optional policies, some experts suggest that if you’re planning to apply to one of these competitive universities, you may want to take the ACT and submit your scores if your results are stellar. Doing so will only make your application more attractive to admissions officers.
Will I Be Penalized If I Go Test Optional?
When schools offer test-optional admissions, they are providing you with the chance to optimize your application by showcasing only your strengths, especially if those strengths are not reflected by your ACT scores. If you choose to go test optional, you will not be at a disadvantage compared with other applicants. Students who do not submit their ACT results are not penalized for exercising that choice.
Of course, if you do excel on the ACT, that high score can go a long way in demonstrating your preparedness for college. So it’s important to carefully think through whether to go test optional.
6 Reasons to Take the ACT Even Though It’s Optional
Should you or should you not take advantage of a school’s test-optional admissions policy? Your individual strengths and circumstances will help you make the right choice.
In this section, let’s review some of the reasons you should submit your ACT scores even when you’re applying to a test-optional school.
The School Recommends You Submit Your Scores
Many admissions counselors still prefer to review ACT results as part of a student’s application, so some schools that are test optional will explicitly suggest that you submit your scores anyway. Some experts also recommend that you send in your ACT scores if you’re applying to Ivy League colleges, public Ivies, or other competitive universities, even if they’re test optional. Don’t ignore this suggestion: register for the ACT, prepare studiously, and submit your results.
Your Degree or Honors Program Requires the ACT
A school might offer test-optional admissions, but you might be hoping to win a spot in a particular honors program or a specific degree program within that college or university. Some of these programs and majors, especially if they’re selective, may require you to achieve a specific ACT score to be eligible for admission. Research that department’s website for their application requirements so you won’t be caught off-guard when it’s time to apply.
Similarly, if you, like many incoming first-year college students, are unsure of which major you want to declare or whether you’ll want to enter an honors program, go ahead and take the ACT. That way, you’ll have your scores ready if you do decide to apply for a program that requires it.
Your Test Scores Are Above Average
If you tend to perform well on standardized tests, especially on any practice ACT exams you’ve taken, we recommend that you take the ACT. Whatever the rest of your college application looks like, high scores can elevate your chances of being admitted.
Many scholarships and other merit-based aid also require you to submit test scores, so if you know you are an ACT ace, take the test so you can be considered. Paying for college can be tough, so take heart knowing that certain universities award automatic academic scholarships based on your test scores.
And every point counts: even one or two points on the exam can mean the difference between thousands of dollars in scholarship money! At one university, for example, a composite score of 30 makes you eligible for $34,000 in aid whereas a 32 can earn you as much as $74,000.
Your Scores Are Within or Above the College’s Middle 50%
You don’t even have to make a perfect or near-perfect score on the ACT to boost your chances of admission. Take a look at each college’s admissions or quick facts websites; you should find the scores earned by the middle 50% of their most recent incoming class. If you earn a score within or above that middle 50% range, you should submit your ACT results.
Additionally, admissions counselors will sometimes have access to aggregate ACT scores from your school, city, or state. So even if your scores are average, they may be higher than those earned by students in your community or region, which can give you an advantage.
If you’re hesitating about taking the test because you’ve not been happy with your scores on sample or previous exams, consider preparing for and taking the ACT anyway. Many students have completed the test a first time and performed poorly (e.g., because of nerves or lack of preparation) but then come back to earn a much higher score just a few months later after studying and taking practice tests. Don’t underestimate yourself!
And take heart that if you end up with a result that doesn’t represent your abilities, you can always choose not to submit your scores.
You Need to Offset Your GPA
Say your grade point average is a little lower than—or right on the cusp of—your dream college’s admission requirements. Landing a strong ACT score can help you offset your grades and strengthen your application. An above-average to excellent test score serves as evidence that you are prepared for college-level academics, even if your transcript reflects a few setbacks in your high school courses. Moreover, studying for the ACT and improving that single exam score often require less effort than trying to enroll in harder classes and raising your grades in every single course you’re taking just to increase your GPA by a few tenths or even hundredths of a point.
You Want to Expand Your Choice of Schools
If you take the ACT, you’ll automatically increase the number of colleges you can apply to. Imagine that a few months into your college search, you learn about a university that ticks all your boxes, but it turns out that they require the ACT as part of your application. No worries—if you’ve already taken the ACT, you’re already set! We recommend that you research the admissions requirements for your incoming class at each of your prospective colleges by September of your junior year.
If a school has not yet posted its admissions criteria for your incoming class, contact their admissions staff and ask whether the ACT will be mandatory. If you can’t be sure that the institution will be test optional when you’re ready to apply, prepare to take the ACT so you’ll be ready in case the school requires your scores.
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4 Reasons to Go Test Optional
OK, so we’ve covered several factors that suggest you should not take advantage of test-optional admissions policies. Now, let’s examine a few reasons that you should consider going ACT optional.
Your ACT Scores Do Not Reflect Your Abilities
Even all-A academic superstars can struggle with standardized tests; anxiety, illness, distractions in the testing facility, or other circumstances beyond your control can all affect how you perform on an exam. Unfortunately, low scores can undermine your chances of being admitted to a college. So if your ACT scores are low, you won’t be able to improve your results, and you’re applying to test-optional colleges, then don’t submit your results.
Instead, you’ll want to make the most of the other elements of your college application: your cumulative and core-course GPA, the number of challenging courses you’ve taken (e.g., honors, IB, and AP courses), your participation in extracurriculars, your leadership potential, your recommendation letters, any interviews with admissions officers, and your college essays. Admissions staff will scrutinize these requirements more closely since you’re not submitting your ACT scores, so make sure they’re top-notch.
You Have High Scores on Other Standardized Tests
Remember that at test-flexible colleges, you can substitute scores on other standardized and national tests, such as the SAT, SAT Subject, AP, or IB exams, if you’re unhappy with your ACT results. Similarly, if your prospective school is test optional, ask your admissions counselor whether you can submit your scores from another test as a supplement to your other materials. High scores on alternative exams can always distinguish your application during the admissions process.
Your GPA or Class Rank Have Earned You Automatic Admission
If you’re an in-state student who has graduated in the top 10% of their high school class, you might be granted automatic admission when applying to certain colleges and universities. You can probably omit sending your ACT scores when applying to schools that have guaranteed your admission because of your class rank or GPA. Just keep in mind that if your ACT scores are required for any scholarship programs, merit-based scholarships, or course placement, you’ll want to study for and take the test.
As always, it’s a good habit to double-check your school’s admissions and scholarship requirements so you can be sure.
You Can’t Take the ACT for Any Reason
Any number of factors have prevented students from taking the ACT. You might be too ill or injured, or you might have a physical impairment or mental-health issue that bars you from reaching an official testing center or completing the exam. Similarly, if you simply cannot afford the ACT registration fees, you may not be able to take the exam.
If you are unable to sit for the ACT for any reason, go test optional. Applying exclusively to test-optional schools and not taking the exam might be the right path for you. You’ll need to instead concentrate on strengthening the other portions of your college application.
That said, please note that the ACT does provide accommodations for eligible test takers. Additionally, if the registration costs are beyond your budget, you can apply for a fee waiver that covers up to four test administrations and even includes free test-prep resources.
What to Do if You’ve Decided to Take the ACT
You’ve studied the various admissions policies of the universities you’re applying to and weighed the pros and cons of going test optional. Let’s say you’ve chosen to take the ACT; what are your next steps?
We recommend that you begin preparing as soon as possible. Familiarize yourself with effective test-taking strategies and apply them on practice tests. Then, on the day of the ACT, do your best! But after you’ve completed the test, try not to ruminate endlessly on your scores. Your exam results can be an important part of your college application, but if you’re applying to test-optional schools, you can always decide not to submit your scores if they don’t quite meet a college’s requirements or don’t reflect your capabilities.
And even if you do submit your composite scores and they’re not a perfect 36, trust that admissions counselors are trained to review your application as a whole. That means they’ll be reviewing your transcripts, personal statement, extracurricular participation, and recommendations alongside your test scores.
Remember that the reason so many universities have gone test optional is that enrollment staff recognize that an ACT score does not encapsulate all your potential contributions to a campus community, nor do they necessarily see exam results as an accurate forecast of how successful you’ll be in a college classroom. So yes, aim high if you take the test, but know that with test-optional admissions, you can choose how to shape your application in a way that best reflects your strengths and abilities.
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Meilee Bridges earned her PhD and MA in English language and literature from the University of Michigan and graduated summa cum laude from the Honors English Program at Trinity University. A former professor turned professional writer and editor, she is dedicated to supporting the educational goals of students from all backgrounds.