What You Need to Know About Test-Optional Colleges

test photoBowdoin College was the first college in the U.S. to make the submission of standardized test scores (SAT/ACT) optional in 1969, but they were hardly trend setters. It was not until forty some years later that over 800 other colleges and universities followed Bowdoin’s lead and are now either test optional or “test flexible”.

Understanding the test optional implications for both students and universities is important in deciding whether or not you should submit your scores.

Here’s what you need to know about standardized test optional admissions.

What does test optional really mean?

This seemingly simple phrase actually has different meanings at different schools. At places like Wake Forest, American University, and George Washington University, for example, the submission of standardized test scores is completely optional. The choice is yours!

At other schools, like Middlebury College, Hamilton College, and the University of Rochester, there is a test-flexible policy where students may send some combination of AP, SAT Subject Test, International Baccalaureate (IB), and others instead of SAT or ACT scores. This allows you to apply to very selective schools but pick and choose the test scores that show you at your best.

Who does the test optional policy benefit, the student or the college?

SAT/ACT optional schools have significant benefits for both the college-bound applicant and the institution. Here’s how:

Student benefits of test-optional

This is fairly obvious. Students who, for one reason or another, do not shine on standardized tests can present the best of themselves without the “blemish” of mediocre test scores. Students who work tirelessly in the classroom to achieve academic excellence but whose standardized test scores do not match up, can apply without them.

Colleges will tell you that test-optional admissions allows colleges to view you holistically. They have the chance to see you as more than a series of numbers (grades, test scores, etc.). If you underachieve on the SAT/ACT, but excel in the classroom and your extracurricular activities, this may be a great option for you.

College/University benefits of test-optional

There are a host of reasons colleges give for going test optional, the most often mentioned is that it allows colleges to select students holistically.  Colleges get to choose the best people to fill their class and not just the best test takers.

According to a recent CNN Money article, “The thinking is that dropping the test requirement will encourage more low-income and minority students – who tend to score lower on the SAT –to apply.”

The benefits for the institution go well beyond this. Test-optional policies can help schools move up in the all-important world of college rankings. Colleges understand that, right or wrong, many families put great faith in college rankings as some measure of quality and success, so improving their standings in college rankings is an institutional goal at many schools. SAT and ACT scores are an important variable in those rankings, and making standardized test scores optional means that students with stronger scores are more likely to submit them while those with lower schools are less likely, thus raising the institutional average which is likely to improve the college’s overall ranking.

Additionally, at colleges like George Washington University, applications for admission jumped nearly 30% this year after announcing a test optional policy. So, test-optional policies definitely allow colleges to select students who may shine in areas other than on standardized tests while maintaining their selective credentials.

How do I know if I should submit my SAT or ACT score?

Essentially, if you are in the top portion of a school’s SAT/ACT range, then you can (and probably should) submit your scores. Schools want to raise their averages, so scores in the top portion of their range are very likely to be admitted. Some experts say your score should be in the top half of a school’s range, but others say your score should be in the top third of the range at particularly selective schools.

Beware that some test-optional schools will still require test scores to qualify for merit scholarships, and test scores may still be required of athletes at the Division 1 and Division 2 levels.

You can find a complete list of test optional/test flexible policies at www.fairtest.org , but you should read each college’s website carefully for the exact details on each school’s policy.

But rest assured that no matter what, students who are not stellar standardized test takers have significantly more options today than they did even a few years ago.

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