If my test scores aren't too strong, should I look to apply to test-optional schools?

I have a pretty good academic profile, but I am not good at taking tests and as a results, my scores are not great. Should I focus on applying to test-optional schools?


Karen Berlin Ishii, One-to-One Test Prep for the SAT and ACT - in NYC and via Skype

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To some extent, I agrree with the advice from Caitlin and Robyn. I do disagree, however, with the suggestion that your GPA (and strength of academic schedule), activities, your personal statement (in the US, that would be your essay or essays), and your letters of recommendation are more important than your test scores. In aggregate, certainly a whole bunch of indicators count more than any single one of them, but test scores on the SAT and ACT are inordinately important. For many schools, they are equal in importance to your GPA of four years' hard work! Some large universities don't even care about your extracurriculars and most schools regard the essay as a balance-tipper: If it strongly supports the rest of the picture, it pushes it a bit further that direction. If it raises red flags about the rest of the student's presentation, then it could jeopardize the application.

It is only because these tests are so important that the offer of a test-optional application becomes appealing to students who struggle with tests. But while there are a good and growing number of colleges that offer this option, it would be a shame to limit yourself to those schools alone. Certainly, if you genuinely find that your test scores are not a fair reflection of your abilities as a student, then include some of those schools on your list, but also apply to others. Choose schools for which your scores will be competitive and also schools for which your other credentials will be very competitive, since your scores are not.

As an SAT and ACT tutor of many years, I have found that students often say they don't test well, or that their test scores aren't reflective of their academic achievement. Frequently, though, those disappointing scores are actually in sync with the students' achievements. A students scoring solid B's in regular level courses – in other words, average achievement – can be expected to score averagely on the SAT. Average means about 500 in each section (of the current 2015 SAT). Most students applying to competitive colleges will find that a 1500 SAT score won't go far – because it's average, and average is not competitive.

So, it's important to understand what your scores really mean and how they match up with the academic records of accepted students at the colleges that interest you. If your high school offers Naviance, that's a great tool to use with your college counselor to learn how your scores and grades compare to those of students from your school who did get accepted. You can also cross-reference both GPAs and test scores of the accepted range of students using college finder lists and guides, such as those offered by the College Board and The Princeton Review.

But there's one more thing to consider: Maybe you can do better on the exams. If you can afford a tutor and have time to study, find a great tutor who can help guide your studies and make them more effective. Otherwise, take a course or try a new approach with a different textbook. Here is a list of excellent SAT and ACT prep resources you can use on your own: karenberlinishii.com/resourcesfset.html

Even if you are an upcoming senior, you still have a few months to prep – you can take the ACT as late as December and the SAT as late as January for many school's admissions. (Be sure to notify the colleges' admissions offices that you have one more test score pending.).

Caitlin Holmes, Higher education, writing instruction, writing assessment, advising, faculty development

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That is an excellent question! I would say that answer depends on you. Applying to colleges usually depends on how well they fit what you imagine your future to be, what you want out of your education, and what you can reasonably afford.

So with that said, I would encourage you to apply for schools that have programs in the area of your interest - not just ones that waive the SAT. Within that set of schools, there will be a range of expectations for academic performance for entry. Some might use the SAT only to determine merit-based awards; others might use the scores to determine admission. Some might use it to determine your pre-admission to competitive programs; others might require scores but only look at those numbers for admission if they are concerned about other areas of academic performance.

In general, your GPA (and strength of academic schedule), your activities, your personal statement, and your letters of recommendation will speak much more for who you are as a student than test scores. In fact, the score is something you can address in your personal statement if you want to. Plenty of students who have lower test scores do wonderfully in colleges (hence why schools are beginning to go test-optional), so it doesn't hurt to talk about your many strengths while recognizing that standardized tests are an area of weakness that you're working on.

I wish you the best of luck on your college application process!

Alyssa Elizabeth, I am a current high school senior who isn't the best at exams

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It is always an advantage to look at test optional schools, but don't complete disregard your scores yet. Many colleges and universities take a more holistic approach and don't just focus on test scores and grades. If you apply to schools like California Lutheran or any of the Universities of California, they take so much more than your scores into account. They want to know more about you and how you might fit into their school. The UCs give you a chance to do 2 personal statements, plus additional comments, so you can talk about how tests have not been your strong suit, and they will take that into consideration.
Don't totally doubt your chances of getting into your dream school, many are willing to take chances on students and many don't only count scores. Schools know that test scores and GPAs don't define your intelligence, and take extracurriculars, types of classes (AP, IB, etc), community services, and so much more into account. If you don't try, it'll definitely be a no. But if you take a chance, you might be surprised at what could happen.

Dan Edmonds, Senior Director of Research and Development and longtime tutor, Noodle

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Because there's been a wide-ranging discussion with a few contrasting viewpoints, I thought I'd contribute some of my perspective, especially as I've recently spent a lot of time researching test optional schools.

Firstly, test-optional schools are no easier or harder to get into than other schools. I actually recent wrote a piece that breaks down a lot of the considerations for whether it makes sense to target test-optional schools. The bottom line, though, is that if your test-taking is significantly weaker than your academics, it might well make sense to pursue at least some test-optional or test-flexible schools (the latter allow you to apply with, for example, AP exams instead of SATs or ACTs).

Secondly, there's been some discussion of the relative importance of different parts of the application. The answers vary from school to school, but in general, both course selection (how much you challenge yourself taking more difficult courses at your school) and GPA are the most important academic factors, and standardized tests are a rather distant third. That said, if you are significantly below the 25th percentile standardized test score for a given school, unless you are a student that school really wants, you're unlikely to get in.

One thing a lot of people don't understand about holistic college admissions is that schools are often looking for very particular kinds of students, and if you are one of those kinds of students, they will be willing to overlook weaknesses in your application that might otherwise stand out. The most common examples of "wanted students" are recruited athletes and legacy students who come from families with a history a giving to the university; both these kinds of students will have a lower academic bar to reach than other students. Many highly selective schools currently have trouble finding as many qualified male students as female students, so it will be easier to get in as a male student. Many students are actively recruiting female students interested in STEM fields. And, of course, there are a host a diversity concerns at most schools, leading students with ethnic, geographic, or socio-economic diversity to have a better chance of getting in. When you're evaluating any weakness in your application-- and poor test scores are one such weakness-- consider the extent to which you're an unusual candidate for the schools that interest you. If you come from a part of the country where the school doesn't get many students, that works to your advantage. If you come from an ethnic or socioeconomic group that's under-represented at that school (check their demographics!), that works to your advantage.

The bottom line is that the process is complicated. I'd advise, if you are worried about getting good test scores, three things:

  1. Do what work you can afford-- both in terms of time and money-- to do as well as you can on whichever of the SAT and ACT is the better fit for you.
  2. Find a number of test-optional (and, if you have strong APs, for instance, test-flexible) schools that interest you.
  3. Apply to some schools that aren't test optional for which your academic profile and your personality are a good fit, and that your test scores don't fall too short of the mark for. Maybe a point or two below the 25th percentile for ACT or 30-50 points below for any given SAT section (though ideally within range for at least one SAT section). Such schools would, based on your scores, be a bit of a stretch, but if you're a strong fit otherwise, especially if you have some characteristic you know they're looking for, you'll have a good shot.

On a personal note: I find that students who are bright but self-described bad test takers often benefit the most from good test preparation, so don't write your scores off if you haven't tried prep yet.

Nedda Gilbert, MSW, Educational Consultant, and Author

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This is a question many students struggle with. I'm glad you asked it! Before jumping into an answer, some history may be helpful. To begin with, the first colleges that dropped out of requiring tests did so because they felt the SAT was seriously flawed, not because they necessarily wanted to give lower-scoring students a break. That may have been the byproduct, but it was not the sole intent.

Since then, many critics feel the SAT has remained flawed. Complicating matters, the SAT has changed several times over.This may be to address that perception of being a problematic test (they may say they've changed the test to better capture student's range of intelligences). But all these changes have only muddied the waters.

Each time the SAT changes, there is a universal and loud groan from the admissions world. And from the students who have to suffer through the unknown of a new format. That first group of new test-takers has little idea of what's in store for them. The admissions officers looking at an applicant's test scores can't comfortably assess student performance on a brand new type of test. What happens if everyone bombs? Or no one gets a decent score on a given section? Common sense would suggest that the new test is guilty - and may need to be re-tweaked - not that the test-takers are deficient. Anyone taking a classroom test in high school is familiar with this scenario. The point is, no one really has solid guideposts on a newly changed exam. Until the dust settles, that first year is like a beta year. How useful or fair is that? Not terribly.

Importantly, colleges like to feel they have some say over the academic "indicators" these tests are supposed to provide. For years now, admissions officers have significantly disregarded the scores on the essay section of the SAT. This is because of how those essays are scored (quite subjectively), and because most people don't write well in a panicked, high-stress situation, (one caveat: a very low score is concerning, and very high scores can provide the reality check that well-crafted essays were actually written by the applicant, not by essay writers). Many admissions folks may look at test scores with a healthy does of skepticism and see these exams within the context of their testing limitations. (Of note, the SAT and ACT don't test for musical ability, creativity, problem-solving, spatial intelligence, emotional intelligence, artistic talent, analytical ability, sports/athletic prowess, and on and on.)

Unlike the ACT which has stayed true to it's core, the SAT seems to keep striving for it's true identity. Having finally caved to offering some of the features of the ACT - for example, score choice - it's still mutating. Here's a factoid, the SAT has changed it's name four times: from the Scholastic Aptitude Test to the Scholastic Assessment Test to the SAT reasoning to - heck - now just the SAT. I rest my case.They have a bad case of who am I. The SAT has also had some serious missteps. Notably, there has been the incorrect scoring of thousand and thousands of tests at some test administrations.

All of this has led to increasing dissatisfaction with the SAT, and standardized tests in general, Of note, all these tests, and test changes, have spawned a huge industry of test prep programs and private consultants. The argument has been made that this has advantaged those students who can afford to hire those services. Whatever the rationale, a sizable number of colleges have now decided to retreat from this amped-up, intense testing landscape and offer students another option. Test-optional.

This all said, I don't want to suggest you now have an easy ride. You mention that you have a "pretty good academic profile." I'm not sure what that means. Are you a B student? An A minus student? What kind of courses do you take? How challenging are your classes relative to what your school offers? If your school offers a wide range of APs and honors, and you have not taken any of these classes, this is as defining to your academic profile as a test score. All of this impacts how your application will be reviewed - sans test.

Here's the sticky wicket: competitive schools that offer a test-optional choice tend to look for especially strong performance in other academic areas. Grades. Course difficulty. If you can't present a college with test scores, they're going to look to evidence you have the mental crunch power to succeed in their program. For example at a test-optional school like Wake Forest, their expectation will be that you have incredibly strong academics. Translation: that you took some of the most demanding courses your school offers (you wont be penalized if they offer few), that you have a high GPA, and that you rank highly within your class. You don't need killer test scores. You may need very impressive academics. That's the admissions benchmark at a school like this.

My feeling is that one type of student who is best served by applying to a test-optional school is a straight-A student, the kind who shows up at every class, meets regularly with teachers, and just through sheer force of will, smarts and hard work gets great grades in demanding classes. However in a testing environment, they freeze up. Or just can't mentally process the types of questions and answers that these tests require for good scores. These individuals present with a wide gap between test performance and school/life performance. These students can potentially file a winning application at a school like Wake. But I don't want to speak for any college - your best bet is to contact schools directly about how holistic the admission process is for students taking advantage of the test-option choice.

Most importantly, you need to target those colleges where your academic profile and extracurriculars will be reviewed favorably, and where you are a fit. Low test scores can doom a college application. Now that you don't need to submit them, you still need to be very strategic about where to apply. For a full list of all test-optional colleges go to www.fairtest.org. As their name suggests, they have played a leadership role in test fairness.

A final caveat: (not to dwell on Wake - though I think highly of the school), when Wake Forest first announced they were switching over to a test-optional admissions policy, test-challenged students all over the nation rejoiced. Here was a great school taking down that one barrier to entry! Well yes, and well, no. In that inaugural year, Wake Forest was inundated by a tidal wave of applications making it one of the competitive years ever. It was probably easier to win the state lottery than win admission to Wake. Since that announcement, this college has continued to rise in the rankings making it one of the most selective and popular schools in the country. My advice is this: anticipate this potential phenomenon when applying to a school.

George Washington U just announced they have become test-optional. I'm not a futurist, but possibly the first year or two of this new policy will create a record number of applications to this school as well- allowing GW to be choosier about whom they admit. I'm also a fan of GW. Given GW's recent ranking by Princeton Review as a "Top College that Creates Futures" (Wake made the list as well), I'm betting this will be a banner year for the school.

I hope I have given you enough background, and practical advice to make some smart decisions. Best of luck with your applications!

Robyn Scott, Educational Consultant, TutorNerds LLC

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Hi. First take a look at your test scores as compared to the national average. At the moment, the national average SAT score is around 1500-1550. Next, look at the average test score for schools you wish to apply to. Do you fit within their range? For example, if Uni A states an average score of 1600 and you scored a 1500, you're still within the range.

Next, look at your academic profile. Are you in honors or AP classes, do you have above a 3.5 GPA? Are you in the IB (International Baccalaureate) program? Do you have any unique community service? (There may still be time for you to get some). E.g., if you want to be a veterinarian, volunteer at an animal shelter. If you are a rising junior or senior, consider starting your own volunteer club and demonstrate leadership and passion in your field.

As far as practical advice, look for schools that advertise "holistic" admissions. This means they look at the whole person, not just scores. Then, consider a liberal arts school (assuming this fits within your major) as they tend to focus more on the personal statement. BTW, if your test scores are low, the personal statement will be paramount. There is also a loop hole in some states, which is to enter community college and then transfer without ever showing anyone test scores (this is only in some states so do solid research). You can also apply to test-optional schools as you mentioned above.

ritariya, nice post

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David H. Nguyen, Education Consultant, College Lecturer, PhD

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For students who don’t have strong test scores, then applying to test-optional and test-flexible schools is a good strategy. Standardized tests only measure one type of smarts. I know many students who are talented and creative, but you would not guess that by looking at their SAT or ACT score. This is part of the reason why many schools have chosen to become test-flexible or test-optional. Test-flexible schools allow you to replace the SAT I or ACT requirement by submitting 2-3 of the following: AP scores, SAT II subject tests, essays graded by one of your high school teachers. Test-optional schools don’t ask for any substitutions in place of the SAT I or ACT.

Vielka Cecilia Hoy, Founder/Director at Vielka Hoy Consulting, Teacher, and Parent

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I agree with most of the previous response. Think of your application in three parts. The part that is demonstrating whether or not you can handle college-level work is answered in a few ways besides your test score. That includes your transcript and any AP exams you may have taken.

Your personal statement though is a separate part and should speak to your passion; it is really the only opportunity that you have to do that. Many admissions officers have said that a common mistake students make is using the personal statement to speak to another part, such as their grades and test scores. You may have the opportunity in a separate section to explain a bad test score ONLY if there were extenuating circumstances such as a huge crisis the night before. You don't want to sound like you are making excuses, which is how admissions officers interpret your explanations.

The advice that I give students with a number problem is to apply early so you are giving the admissions officers more time to review the other parts of your application (letters and personal statement). Because fewer people submit applications in October and November, readers and admissions officers have more time to consider those other parts rather than relying too much on the first part (grades, test scores) when everyone is submitting their application in January.

And just to quickly speak to the third part--your letters--let those speak to your character. Don't use that opportunity to again have a teacher try to explain away a test score. Teachers should write about how awesome you are so be sure to ask teachers who have seen you in multiple capacities and can speak to that.

So to answer your question, if you didn't do so well on your SAT, apply early, get great letters, and write an awesome personal statement. And definitely don't rule out schools because of it.

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