As you research colleges and universities and consider their admissions requirements, you’ll inevitably notice that many schools require you to submit your SAT scores as part of your application. Admissions staff often consider your standardized test scores to confirm your GPA or to determine whether you demonstrate strengths beyond what your high school transcripts can reveal. And according to the College Board, which administers the SAT, the exam specifically assesses the knowledge you’ve learned in reading, writing, and math—skills that also help measure how prepared you are for college and career.
Given its purpose, it’s no wonder that colleges and universities have been requiring the SAT for decades. But as you peruse school websites and the brochures you collected at college fairs, you might also notice a term pop up when it comes to SAT scores: test optional. But what does test optional mean? Is taking the SAT itself optional, or does it mean submitting your scores is optional? Are standardized tests optional for every applicant or just specific individuals? And is the SAT optional in reality, or are students who submit their scores secretly more likely to be admitted than those who don’t?
Here’s what you need to know so you can decide whether the SAT should be part of your college application process.
The SAT Is Not Always Optional
More than 1,800 accredited colleges and universities that issue bachelor’s degrees—meaning more than half of such institutions—offer test-optional or even test-free admissions. But that still means a hefty number of colleges do require the SAT. As we’ll discuss below, the best way to determine whether the college you’re applying to requires the SAT is to check their admissions website or connect with their admissions staff.
Before we move into the nitty-gritty of colleges that are test optional and what that means for you, remember that the SAT is generally not required if you are applying to a community college or a trade school after high school. Community colleges usually have open admissions, meaning that the only criterion for acceptance is earning your high school diploma or earning your GED. Trade schools may require you to take a placement exam, but not the SAT, which is primarily a test of skills you’d use at a school that issues bachelor’s degrees.
Some test-optional schools may not require the SAT as part of your application but still require you to submit your scores to determine which courses you should be placed in (e.g., which level of math you should take as part of your general-education credits) or for the purposes of their own institutional research. Alternatively, some schools require you to participate in an interview with an admissions counselor or submit substitute materials, such as additional recommendation letters or samples of your academic work, if you choose not to submit your SAT scores. So be sure to read each college’s admissions policy carefully.
Also be aware that even if you’re applying only to colleges that are test optional, there are 20 states that currently require you to take the SAT to graduate from high school; the existence of test-optional college admissions will not exempt you from that graduation requirement.
What Does Test-Optional Admissions Really Mean?
The term test optional refers to college admissions policies that allow you to choose whether to submit your SAT results with your application—your test scores are optional rather than mandatory. If you apply to a school that is test optional, you can take the test but choose to withhold your scores if you’re unhappy with your performance or don’t feel they accurately reflect your abilities. Or you can choose to submit your SAT results, and the admissions office will consider your scores as part of your application.
(Of course, if you are applying to only test-optional schools, you could potentially even decide not to take the SAT at all. But before you start doing celebratory somersaults because you relish the idea of never taking the exam, read on to make sure it’s the right path for you.)
You may also see some undergraduate institutions offering something called test-free or test-blind admissions. This means the university will not consider your standardized exam scores even if you submit them. Currently, only around 80 institutions offer this policy, including schools in the University of California and California State University systems. Meanwhile, test-flexible colleges are those that allow you to choose among the SAT, ACT, AP, and IB exams to fulfill their admissions requirements.
Why Are Schools Offering Test-Optional Admissions?
Test-optional admissions became much more popular during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, when SAT administration shut down in the wake of lockdowns and health protocols. But more than 1,000 colleges and universities were already offering the policy. So what’s been inspiring colleges to provide this alternative?
Test-optional policies are often touted as a way to make college admissions fairer and more equitable. They are intended to open access to students who have lower test scores but otherwise strong applicants — in short, students whose strengths are not reflected in their SAT performance. Many universities want to admit a more diverse pool of students, and critics have long argued that the SAT discriminates against specific groups, such as low-income students and BIPOC, and that standardized test scores often reflect the test-takers’ financial backgrounds and access to resources rather than their academic abilities.
Many education experts also believe that standardized tests do not accurately predict whether students are prepared for the rigors of college or will be successful all the way to graduation; they support relying on other factors, such as high school grades, recommendation letters, extracurricular participation or leadership, and responses to short-answer and essay prompts to assess applicants’ potential.
Who Can Take Advantage of Test-Optional Policies?
If a college offers a test-optional policy, it usually applies to all or most of its applicants. Still, many schools restrict which students are allowed to go test optional. Some universities, for example, require that international, out-of-state, and/or homeschooled students submit their SAT scores. At other institutions, applicants are exempt from submitting their scores only if they meet a minimum GPA or have placed above a specific class rank (e.g., in the top 5% or 10% of their graduating class).
Because these policies vary so widely, make sure to read each school’s test-optional policy carefully to determine whether you’re eligible.
Is the SAT Optional at the Colleges I’m Applying To?
You can find updated lists of schools that offer test-optional admissions online; just be sure that you’re looking at the most recent version of these lists because schools can change their admissions requirements from year to year. For example, more than 1,400 colleges have committed to making their test-optional policy permanent. Others have opted in only temporarily (e.g., for one to three years). Still other universities are returning to requiring the SAT, such as MIT, and several colleges have never offered the test-optional policy.
Another useful resource that’s fairly comprehensive and updated frequently is the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, which categorizes the current list into test-optional and test-free institutions. You can easily search their list for schools you’re interested in, find links to each college’s application requirements, and learn how long they’ve publicly committed to offering test-optional admissions. It’s a convenient site to look up multiple schools at once.
Ultimately, though, you should check with the colleges themselves, either by consulting their admissions pages or connecting with their admissions staff and asking, “Are SAT scores required for the class of 2023?” or “Is the SAT optional for the class of 2024?” That way, you’ll always have the latest, most accurate information on whether they require that you submit your exam scores.
Is the SAT Optional at Top-Tier Schools?
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, almost all of the most prestigious schools in the U.S., including Ivy League schools and public Ivies, required the SAT for admission. But in 2022–2023, top universities such as Boston University, Brown, Dartmouth, Northwestern, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale were test optional. Other selective schools, such as Columbia, Cornell, and Stanford, will continue their test-optional admissions at least through the 2023–2024 school year, and Harvard has already announced that they will extend its current test-optional policy through 2026.
You might also notice that a large number of top-ranking liberal arts colleges and research universities no longer require the SAT for admission. So again, if you’re planning to apply to one of these universities, it’s best to check their admissions website or contact their admissions officers to confirm their most up-to-date requirements.
Will I Be Penalized If I Don’t Submit My Scores?
You might be wondering whether the test-optional option is a trick of some kind. Maybe you’re thinking that you’ll be less likely to be admitted if you don’t submit your scores even though the university says they’re not required.
Rest assured: it’s not a trick. You will not be penalized for not submitting your SAT scores to a test-optional college. Schools are simply offering you the opportunity to curate your application according to your strengths. If you choose not to submit your SAT results, you will not be at a disadvantage compared with other applicants.
That said, a strong SAT score is evidence of your preparedness for college, so you should still weigh the pros and cons of submitting your scores to test-optional schools carefully, which we’ll discuss below.
6 Reasons to Take the SAT Even If It’s Optional
Deciding whether to take advantage of a school’s test-optional admissions policy can be tough, and the answer depends on your individual circumstances. Let’s start with reasons you should take the SAT and submit your scores even though you’re applying to a test-optional college.
The College Recommends You Submit Your Scores
Some schools that are test optional will outright recommend that you still submit your SAT results. That’s because many admissions counselors still prefer to see them as part of a student’s application. If that’s the case, take the obvious hint: register for and take the test, aim high, and submit your scores. Some education insiders will tell you that it’s also best to study hard, earn strong scores, and submit your SATs to Ivy League colleges and public Ivies even if they’re test optional just to improve your chances of getting in.
You’re a Terrific Test Taker
You might also guess rightly that if you perform reliably well on standardized tests, you should definitely take the SAT. High scores can only boost your chances of being admitted.
Earning a stellar score on the exam can also earn you scholarships and other merit-based aid, from full-ride awards to small grants. Many of these financial awards require the SAT, and you don’t want to lose out on the opportunity to win hundreds to thousands of dollars to offset tuition and other costs by not taking the exam. It’s always a good idea to start thinking about applying for scholarships early, but even if you don’t, taking the SAT just in case will mean you’re playing it safe.
Your Scores Are Within the College’s Middle Range for Previously Admitted Students
This might come as a surprise, but even average scores can be a boon to your application, especially since universities consider your scores as just one part of your application—and because admissions staff will sometimes consider whether your scores are high relative to other students who attend your school or live in your city, state, or region. So how do you know which score to shoot for? Most colleges list the scores earned by the middle 50% of each incoming class of first-year students on their websites; look for them on the university’s admissions or quick facts pages. If you earn a score within or above that stated range, go ahead and submit your SAT results.
Even if you’ve struggled before with standardized tests, consider studying for and taking the SAT anyway; you may surprise yourself with higher-than-expected scores if you prepare well and at the right time. Remember that if you end up with a lower score, you can always choose not to submit your results—or, if you’re enough in advance of application deadlines, you can study and take the test again.
Your Grades Are Not Quite Up to Snuff
If your GPA is lower than what’s required by the colleges you’re applying to, working hard to earn a high SAT score can help you offset your grades and strengthen your application. An above-average to exemplary test result can prove to admissions crews that you are ready for the rigors of academic coursework in college, regardless of what’s on your transcript.
And as many high school students can attest, raising your SAT score is often easier than improving a less-than-stellar GPA. After all, you’re focusing on studying for a single exam rather than trying to raise your grades in every class you’re taking.
Your Intended Major or Honors Program Requires It
Even if a college or university is test optional, honors programs and certain degree programs within that school, especially if they’re competitive, can still require applicants to achieve a specific SAT score to be admitted to that major. If you already know which major you’ll be pursuing, be sure to check out that department’s website for their eligibility requirements.
For that same reason, if you’re unsure of which course of study you want to pursue, take the test. That way, you’ll have your scores tucked away in your back pocket (well, in your SAT portal anyway) when the time comes to apply to your degree program.
You Want A Greater Choice of Colleges
Taking the test doesn’t just expand which degree programs you’ll be eligible for; it also expands your college options. If, for example, you discover a school that really excites you later in your research process, but it turns out that they require the SAT for admissions, you don’t want to lose the opportunity of being considered just because you’ve not studied for or taken the exam.
So make sure to research colleges’ admissions policies for your incoming class year no later than September of your junior year. If the university does not yet list its requirements for the year you’ll be applying, call the admissions office and ask if the SAT will be optional or not. If for some reason you can’t be certain that the school will be test optional the year you’re applying, study effectively and take the test so you’ll be prepared in case the university starts requiring the SAT again.
4 Reasons Not to Submit Your SAT Scores
Now that we've covered reasons you should complete the SAT even if you’re applying to test-optional colleges, let's consider reasons you should not submit your results.
Your SAT Scores Are Lower
SAT scores are just one aspect of your college application; admission counselors also consider factors such as your GPA, the academic rigor of your high school coursework, extracurricular activities, leadership positions, recommendation letters, and writing samples. So if your SAT scores are underwhelming (it happens to even the best of us!) and you can’t afford the time, money, or effort to improve your performance by having another go, take advantage of the test-optional policy and don’t submit your scores.
Low scores are nothing to be ashamed of; test anxiety or other factors beyond your control can certainly affect your performance. But those low scores can definitely hurt your chances of getting admitted, so it’s best to omit them from your application. Just make sure that your grades, community service, and other accomplishments will serve as convincing evidence of your potential because these will be reviewed more closely in the absence of your SAT results.
You Performed Better on Other Exams
You might also choose not to submit your SATs if your scores are better on other standardized tests, such as the ACT, AP Exams, or IB assessments. In that case, share those scores instead with test-optional and test-flexible schools to improve your chances of getting admitted.
You’re Eligible for Automatic Admission Because of Your Class Rank or GPA
Some universities, such as public colleges in Texas, grant automatic admission to in-state students who graduate in the top 10% of their high school class. If you’re applying to schools where you are guaranteed admission because of your class rank or GPA, you can probably omit sending your SAT scores—unless, of course, your test performance will be used to evaluate your candidacy for scholarships and merit-based financial aid or to determine your course placement. Again, it’s always best to check and then double-check the admissions requirements to be certain.
You're Unable to Take the SAT
Many schools went test optional because of the pandemic; similarly, if you are unable to take the SAT for any reason, including illness, injury, physical impairment, severe test anxiety, or inability to reach designated testing locations, take advantage of test-optional policies. Focus instead on strengthening the other parts of your application.
As you might recall, one of the reasons many universities began offering test-optional policies is that lower-income students were disadvantaged whereas more affluent students could afford to purchase test-prep classes and individual tutoring or take the test multiple times to improve their scores. If the SAT registration fees are outside your budget, applying only to test-optional colleges and simply not taking the test is one possibility. However, keep in mind that the College Board offers fee waivers to certain students. If you’re eligible, you can actually submit your test scores to as many colleges as you choose, regardless of whether they’re required. Our guide on fee waivers provides step-by-step instructions on how to apply.
OK, I’ve Decided to Take the SAT — What Do I Do Now?
Once you’ve researched the test requirements for the colleges you’re applying to and weighed whether to take advantage of any test-optional policies, you may decide to take the plunge and register for the SAT. If that’s the case, you’ll want to start preparing and practicing effective test-taking strategies.
On testing day, breathe, do your absolute best, and try not to obsess about your scores. Remember that SAT results can be an important part of your application, but if you’re applying to test-optional schools, you’ll have the power to choose not to submit your scores if you’re not proud of them, and no one will be the wiser! And even if you do submit your scores and they’re not a 1600, take heart that admissions counselors know how to review applications in a holistic way; they’ll be looking at your grades, your college essay, your extracurricular involvement, and your recommendations too.
As the trend toward test-optional (and test-flexible and test-blind) policies suggests, enrollment professionals recognize that an SAT score does not reflect your worth as an individual or provide a comprehensive prediction of how well you’ll do in college. So try your hardest, and when it comes time to choose whether to submit your scores, you can decide what’s best for you.
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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.