Test Prep

When Should You Send Test Scores to Test-Optional Colleges?

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The two colleges that are my son's goal schools for this fall have both gone test optional, but he is really good on tests. He plans to take both the SAT and ACT again once they open back up the test dates, so how do I decide whether to send his test scores to these schools or not? Is there a threshold he should use (like if he gets a 35 ACT he should send it, but below 30 he should not)? Should he only send them if they're high, or how do you decide with an "optional" school?


There are no hard-and-fast rules that govern when a student should send scores to a test-optional college, whether it's a school that has not required test results for years or one that just made a quick pivot due to the impact of COVID-19 on SAT and ACT offerings. So "The Dean" will take an "If this were my child ... " approach to your question and try to provide some guidelines.

When any institution is, by College Board standards, either "Most Selective" or "Very Selective" (meaning that the acceptance rate is roughly 35 percent or below), then my advice is usually to submit scores if they are at (or, ideally, above) the school's midpoint. Colleges usually provide just a median range, which you can also find on the College Board Big Future website. (Look up the schools that interest you and then click on the "Applying" tab.) You can also find these ranges easily on the helpful "Compare Colleges" page. Then you can determine the exact center of each range.

Consider These Exceptions

  • If an applicant is an underrepresented minority student or comes from a disadvantaged and/or first-generation-to-college background, send any score in the median range, even at the lowest end of it.
  • If the applicant is a recruited athlete aiming for an NCAA Division I or II institution, send any score that satisfies the NCAA requirement. For D3 recruited athletes, send any score in the median range, including those from the bottom.

Although test-optional colleges claim that they do not discriminate against students who don't send scores, "The Dean" wouldn't bet the mortgage money that this is always true. In "normal" times (which these most certainly are not), applicants to competitive colleges — especially the highly competitive ones — who are solid candidates but don't stand out in the crowd, could hurt admission odds by not submitting strong scores. They will be up against similar-seeming contenders who will be including impressive test results.

But, in today's unprecedented admissions environment, most college officials are worried about filling beds and will be focusing on other strengths, not scores, when making admission decisions. This could be a positive change that was spawned by the pandemic and will continue, or it may only affect your son's class and possibly the one or two that follow, since some newly test-optional colleges have altered their policies on only a temporary or trial basis. Yet even if the spotlight next year isn't on test scores, it always helps an applicant to have good ones.

So ... if your son were my son, I'd definitely endorse sending a 35 ACT score everywhere, but submitting a 30 would depend on the college in question and on the student's profile, as explained above.

Finally, although I stand by my advice and would offer it to my own child as well as to yours, it does make me sad that the college selection and application process has turned into such a taxing ordeal, leaving students and parents splitting hairs over what tests to take and scores to send, and even over which classes to select and activities to pursue. If the horrendous novel coronavirus brings with it any silver lining, perhaps it will be that college admissions protocols shift, and that families find new, less stressful priorities when making college choices. Best of luck to you and your son as you navigate the maze ahead.

About the Ask the Dean Column

Sally Rubenstone is a veteran of the college admissions process and is the co-author of three books covering admissions. She worked as a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years and has also served as an independent college counselor, in addition to working as a senior advisor at College Confidential since 2002. If you'd like to submit a question to The Dean please email us at editorial@collegeconfidential.com.

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