Test-Optional Colleges: A Guide for Prospective Applicants

Recently, Drake University and George Washington University added their names to the list of test-optional or test-flexible schools.

These announcements came in a year that, according to FairTest, has seen the addition of the more test-optional schools than ever before. A test-optional school typically gives applicants a choice about whether they submit SAT or ACT scores, whereas a test-flexible school offers students alternatives that they may submit in lieu of those test scores.

As the college application process becomes increasingly complicated, the growing number of test-optional and test-flexible schools — with their wide range of differing policies — can add yet another layer of confusion for applicants.

In principle, test-optional and -flexible schools allow applicants to worry about one less factor and help students whose standardized test scores are substantially weaker than their grades to present themselves in the best possible light. But many applicants are skeptical, and wonder whether leaving out a test score might actually hurt their chances of admission. In addition, schools with test-optional or -flexible policies often replace the test scores with other requirements, or they may only be test-optional for students who fulfill certain qualifying criteria, or they may be test-optional for some but not all fields of study.

How to Know If You Should Target Test-Optional Schools

The first question you may have is whether it’s worth specifically targeting schools with test-optional and test-flexible policies. The students who benefit most from such policies are those whose academic and extracurricular achievements are significantly stronger than their standardized test scores.

Probably the best way to get a sense of your prospects is to ask your school guidance counsellor where students with similar grades have successfully applied in the past couple of years, and to compare your SAT and ACT scores to the reported scores for students in those schools. Most schools publish their 25th and 75th percentile scores for each section of the SAT and for the ACT composite. If you scores fall comfortably in that range (or higher), they are probably consistent with your academic achievement, and there’s no particular reason to target test-optional schools. If your scores are below the 25th percentile — especially if you don’t have particular strengths that might make you a competitive candidate nonetheless — then you might want to target test-optional schools. If you haven’t taken the SAT or ACT yet, your PSAT or PLAN scores can serve as a reasonable substitute for SAT or ACT scores, though keep in mind that with preparation, most students can improve significantly from their PSAT/PLAN scores.

If you decide that it makes sense to target test-optional schools, then you need to understand the impact that excluding standardized test scores from your application will have on the rest of your application — especially if you’re interested in selective schools. Applicants to test-optional schools need to make sure their grades and course selections are strong enough for the programs they’re applying to. Have you challenged yourself by taking AP or honors courses? Extracurricular activities, recommendations, and your essay will also play a larger role in the absence of test scores. Have you held a leadership role in any of the activities that mattered most to you? Do you have teachers who will passionately advocate for you in their letters? Do you have a compelling story to tell in your personal statement? Getting into a selective test-optional school isn’t easier than getting into a selective test-required school. Bowdoin College, which has long been test-optional, only admits about 15 percent of its applicants.

How to Apply to Test-Optional Schools

It’s essential to understand test-optional policies — and what, if anything, you’ll need to submit in place of test scores if you do go the test-optional route. Some schools have a certain standard you must achieve to qualify for test-optional admissions. The University of Texas at Austin, for instance, grants automatic admission to Texas residents in the top 8 percent of their public high school classes. The school is, in other words, test-optional for those students, but not for anyone else. Drake’s new policy sets aside test scores as a requirement for students who have a 3.0 or better GPA, and the school is willing to allow an interview instead of test scores; that said, some paths of study don’t allow test-optional admissions. Even schools with very open test-optional policies, such as Bowdoin and Mount Holyoke — both of which don’t replace the test scores with any additional requirements and allow test-optional admissions for nearly all students — still require that homeschooled students submit standardized test scores.

Since most test-optional schools, especially liberal arts colleges, place a particular focus on holistic admissions — looking at the student as more than just a set of numbers — all applicants to these schools, even those who choose to submit test scores, should spend extra time on the application components that show who they are beyond their numbers.

Make sure you highlight the most important activities you’ve been involved in, particularly those you had leadership roles in. Ensure that the teachers who will be writing your college recommendation letters will be enthusiastic advocates for you. Take the time to write a strong essay that gives the reader a sense of who you are, what kind of student you’ll be, and what kind of impact you’ll have on campus. If the school has supplemental essays, make sure you spend time to respond thoughtfully, as those essay are often included with an eye toward determining how well a given student will fit into the environment of the school and can thus play a particularly important role in admissions.

When to Submit Scores to Test-Optional Schools

Many students who aren’t specifically targeting test-optional schools will still apply to a few of these institutions. If you’re one of those applicants, you may be wondering whether it makes sense to go the test-optional route even though you have reasonably good scores. The answer really depends on the strength of your test scores and the rest of your application. Look at the 25th and 75th percentile scores for the test you’ve taken (SAT or ACT) for the admitted applicants at the school. If you are above the 75th percentile score, you should absolutely submit the score. If you are below the 25th percentile score, I’d generally advise not submitting. If you land between those two numbers, it depends on how strong the rest of your application is; if the scores are weaker than the rest of your application, it might make more sense to leave them out; it’s best to consult with a guidance counselor or professional who knows the details of your application better. In most cases, including a score between the 25th and 75th percentile won’t hurt your chances of admission, especially if the score is closer to the 75th percentile than to the 25th.

Whether Test-Optional Really Means Test-Optional

“Does test-optional really mean test-optional?” That’s one of the biggest concerns I hear from students and parents about applying to test-optional schools. Many worry that they will be at a disadvantage when compared to students who do submit test scores. The admissions offices at Bates and Bowdoin, two of the schools that have pioneered test-optional admissions, have been particularly outspoken on this front: They find that the students they admit who do not submit test scores are virtually indistinguishable in terms of success (defined as grades and graduation rate) from those who do submit scores; and at both schools, roughly a third of applicants are non–score submitters.

It’s certainly possible that some schools hold non-submitters to a higher standard, but in general, admissions offices at selective colleges are adept at making comparisons even in the absence of SAT and ACT scores. They have a wealth of historical data on how students perform, given factors such as feeder high schools, transcripts, AP exam scores, and even SAT subject tests (which some non-submitters choose to send in).

The bottom line is that each part of the rest of your application will be looked at more closely, but by not submitting your scores, you won’t put yourself at a competitive disadvantage at the vast, vast majority of test-optional schools.

If you are truly concerned, consider taking AP exams or SAT subject tests in your areas of strength so you can further bolster your application. In fact, at some test-flexible schools, students who don’t submit the SAT or ACT are required instead to submit SAT subject test and/or AP or IB (International Baccalaureate) test scores instead. But ultimately, if schools offer test-optional admissions, it’s because they believe that students can be adequately evaluated without SAT or ACT scores, and you will not be putting yourself at a disadvantage by opting not to submit your scores.

Where You Can Find Test-Optional and Test-Flexible Admissions

Check out the companion piece to this article, 15 Great Test-Optional Colleges You Should Consider, which lists my favorite selective test-optional and test-flexible schools — and fills you in on what you need to do to get in.

Use the Noodle college search to find which universities match your GPA or test scores.