What Does Test Optional Really Mean?


Are one or more of the colleges you're interested in calling themselves test optional? What does test optional mean, and what does it mean for you? Read this guide to learn everything you need to know about test optional schools. We'll cover: the test optional college meaning and how it compares to other test policies, why more schools are becoming test optional, if test optional schools can really be fair when reviewing applications, and how to decide if you should submit your SAT or ACT scores to test optional colleges.


What Does Test Optional Mean? How Is It Different From Other Test Policies?

First things first, what does it mean to be test optional? If a school is test optional, that means you get to decide if you want to submit SAT or ACT scores. If you submit them, they'll be reviewed as part of your application, but if you don't, you won't be at any disadvantage compared to applicants who did submit test scores.

How is that possible? If you don't submit test scores, test optional schools will simply make each of your other application components (such as GPA, class rank, extracurriculars, etc.) more important to make up for the lack of test scores. For example, a person who submits test scores to a school would have their application evaluated in say, six categories, and one who didn't would have their application evaluated in five categories, each worth a bit more than the six categories of the first student.

How does "test optional" differ from other testing policies? Below are brief overviews of four other common testing policies.


Tests Required

This is the most common policy, and for a long time it was the only policy colleges had for standardized tests: you must submit ACT or SAT scores if you want your application to be considered. If you don't submit scores from either of these exams, your application will be considered incomplete, and it won't be reviewed.


Test Flexible

Test-flexible schools are slightly different from regular test-optional colleges. At these schools, you can submit other test scores in place of SAT/ACT scores. Acceptable scores will vary depending on the institution, but you can generally fulfill the SAT/ACT requirement by submitting scores from, AP tests, IB tests, and/or school-administered placement tests. Some test-flexible schools include NYU, Drexel University, and the University of Rochester.


GPA/Class Rank Substitution

At some schools, you may forgo sending in your SAT/ACT scores only if you meet the school's minimum required GPA or class rank. If you meet these requirements, you'll be automatically admitted, with or without test scores. If you don't meet these minimum requirements, then you must then apply as you normally would and submit your SAT/ACT scores with your application. Specific requirements vary by school, but you'll typically need at least a ranking in the top 10% or a 3.5 unweighted GPA. Well-known schools offering a class rank/GPA substitution policy include UT Austin and Texas A&M.


Test Blind

At test blind schools, SAT/ACT test scores are not considered at all during the admission process, even if you include them in your application. Test blind schools include the University of California schools, Hampshire College, and Washington State University. The number of test blind schools is growing; however, it's still quite a rare policy.

As you can see, of all the testing policies, test optional is the most flexible. You have complete freedom to send or not send scores as you like without having to submit substitute scores or meet a certain GPA/class rank.




Why Are Schools Switching to Test Optional Policies?

As recently as a few years ago, test optional schools were fairly rare. However, there has been a major shift in the trend, and now roughly 1,000 colleges in the United States are test optional. What's been the cause for this change?

There are two major factors. The first is that colleges don't want low test scores to hinder applicants who otherwise have strong applications and would be an asset to their school. Colleges are making an effort to attract more diverse applicants, and they don't want potential students to be held back by circumstances beyond their control. Research has shown that students from more affluent backgrounds consistently have higher SAT and ACT scores, so many schools are dropping the standardized test requirement so students from more disadvantaged backgrounds aren't put at a further disadvantage during the college admissions process.

The pandemic also accelerated this trend. In 2020, when many test centers closed, it became difficult or impossible for many students to take standardized tests. Therefore, many schools that previously required test scores became test optional. Most of these schools are only temporarily test optional, but a fair number of them have decided to make the change permanent after seeing how well it worked. Overall, as schools put more emphasis on admitting a broader range of students, we expect even more schools to become test optional to give applicants as many options and opportunities as possible.


How Do Test Optional Schools REALLY Treat Test Scores?

So test optional seems like a nice idea, but is it really fair? If a test optional school is reviewing two similar candidates, and one has awesome test scores and the other hasn't submitted any scores at all, they'll choose the student with the great test scores, right?

Incredulous you may be, but test optional schools really are able to fairly judge applications! It's actually not that different from what they've already been doing. Colleges are used to applicants with a wide variety of high schools, backgrounds, and experiences. They've had decades to hone their methods of fairly evaluating, say, a student who went to a school with a lot of AP courses, extracurriculars, and mentorship, against others who didn't have such opportunities. Making an adjustment for a student who chooses not to submit SAT or ACT scores is not a great difficulty for them.

As we mentioned above, the way schools do this is by making the other components of your application worth more to make up for the test scores. If you decide not to submit test scores it becomes even more important that you do well in those remaining areas (especially grades/class rank/difficulty of classes). However, if those areas are strong, you have just as good a shot at getting accepted as a student with a similarly strong application who did submit test scores.

Is the process perfect? No, but it never can be when you have a group of people evaluating other people. But it's pretty close, and you can trust test optional schools when they say not submitting test scores won't put you at a disadvantage.


Should You Submit Test Scores to Test Optional Schools?

So what should your final decision be if you're applying to test optional schools? Should you submit standardized test scores or not? The answer is more complicated than just a yes/no, so let's take a closer look.

First, we recommend everyone who is reasonably able to take the SAT/ACT. You shouldn't fly across the country during a pandemic to take the SAT/ACT, but if you can safely take the test nearby (and most test centers have reopened), you should. Your test scores might be higher than you expect, and even if they're not, if you're applying to a test optional school, you're under no requirement to submit them. Taking a standardized test gives you the most options for your college applications.

Second, remember what "test optional" means. When a school says they are test optional, it means they don't require SAT or ACT scores but will still review them if you submit them. It does not mean that SAT and ACT scores don't matter. 

What this all means for you is that, even for test optional schools, strong SAT or ACT scores will absolutely still help your college applications. Not submitting test scores won't hurt your application, as these schools have stated, but it also means you lose out on a potential chance to make your application stronger. So, how to decide? Use these guidelines:

Submit test scores if:

  • Your test scores are strong (at or near the 75th percentiles of admitted students to the school)
  • You don't have other strong test scores (AP tests, IB Tests, etc.) to send
  • The school still recommends submitting scores if you can

Don't submit test scores if:

  • Your test scores are low (Below 50th percentiles of admitted students)
  • You're confident other areas of your application (GPA, class rank, extracurriculars, etc.) make up for a lack of test scores
  • You have strong test scores from other exams (AP tests, IB Tests, etc.) that you will submit

Basically, for people able to take the SAT or ACT, submit your test scores if you think they'll help you. Don't submit scores if you feel they'll be a particularly weak area of your application. Colleges won't hold it against you for not being able to take a standardized test, but you'll still need the rest of your application to be strong in order to convince them to admit you.




Summary: What Does Test Optional Mean?

What does test optional really mean? When a school is test optional, it means you get to decide if you want to submit SAT/ACT scores. If you do submit scores, they'll be reviewed, but if you don't, you won't be penalized and other components of your application will simply be weighted more to take the place of the test scores. More and more colleges are becoming test optional as a way to attract a more diverse student body, not penalize good students who don't have the resources to prepare for standardized tests, and to account for disruptions to schooling and test centers caused by the pandemic. 

Although it may seem doubtful schools really won't penalize you for not submitting test scores, they've put rigorous admission policies in place in order to ensure the process is fair and equal between applicants, whether they submitted scores or not. With that being said, we recommend everyone who can take the SAT or ACT. If you aren't happy with your scores, you don't need to submit them, but if you are, then you can use them to further boost your college applications.


What's Next?

Which schools are test optional?  We've compiled a list of over 900 colleges that let you decide whether you want to submit SAT/ACT scores.

Do you know all the steps to apply to college? Check out this article to learn about the full college application process, step by step.

Debating whether to take the SAT or ACT? Read our extensive ACT vs SAT guide to learn about the differences between the two tests and to get tips on choosing the right one for you.



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About the Author
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Christine Sarikas

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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