Preparing for College

Are Tests REALLY Optional at Test-Optional Colleges?

Question: My son is an excellent student (top 10th of class) with good extracurriculars (literary magazine co-editor, student council member, glee club president, Model UN). His math SAT score is decent (670) but his Critical Reading score (560) is well below the mid-point range at the colleges that interest him. Based on his testing history, he does not expect that retaking the SAT will improve his CR score, so he is planning to apply to some of the most selective test-optional colleges. However, a friend told him that, as a white, upper-middle-class applicant from the Northeast, he will be competing against many other similar students who DO submit scores, and so my son's admission chances will be hurt by withholding the test scores, even though they are not required. Is this true?

My response is a resounding--albeit entirely unsatisfying--"It depends." Being test-optional can be a better deal for colleges than for students. For starters, it typically increases the applicant pool because seniors with scores below the norm, who may fear applying to comparable test-requisite schools, are more apt to aim for the test-optional competitors. It also allows admission officials to accept those who are attractive to them for a variety of reasons (athletes, underrepresented minority students, etc.) but who wouldn't make the cut without a no-test option.

But for those students whose profiles are solid but not stupendous, the omission of test scores may indeed be a liability. Think for a minute of all the online dating sites like When my friend Brenda, a single, middle-aged female, is trolling those boards, she's far more likely to contact the guys who have posted pictures than those who have not. No doubt, if Brenda were to stumble on a truly heart-stopping possibility ("Drop-dead gorgeous, Pulitzer-prize winning Marathon runner; Make-a-Wish Foundation Volunteer of the Year; Vacation homes in Palm Springs and Paris ... ) she would probably take a shot, photograph or not. But, as for more garden-variety hopefuls ("Friendly 50-something real estate agent; likes fine dining and long walks ...), Brenda shunts the contenders without photos to the bottom of her list. (Well, there was that one real estate agent she Googled ... long story ... ;) )

Similarly, college applicants like your son, with good grades and a respectable roster of school activities, are in ample supply at the most competitive test-optional schools. If some of these applicants also boast strong SAT scores, then your son may be passed over as fast as Brenda ignores the photo-free real estate agents. Of course, your son is a unique individual, and if he can make his finest atypical traits shine through on his application, then he shouldn't be hurt by withholding his test scores.

If you check with admission officials or with the folks at FairTest (who do a terrific job of keeping all of us informed about which colleges don't require tests in the admissions process), they'll probably tell you that the test-optional colleges will not penalize candidates who don't submit test scores. In my heart of hearts, I'd like to think that it's true (and I may get some grief for saying otherwise). But, when many of the applicants to such schools look like the "average outstanding kid" (I'm quoting myself here, from Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions), then I contend that good test scores might end up as the tie-breaker.