Test Prep

Should You Apply Only to Test-Optional Schools?

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Taking the SAT or ACT is probably one of the most nerve-wracking moments of high school, not to mention all the time and energy you spend prepping for the test. But as we've mentioned before, a growing number of colleges don't require SAT or ACT scores as part of your application for admission. These colleges are known as test-optional.


You may be wondering about the quality of a school that is test-optional -- some students see this as strange, considering that SAT or ACT scores have been required of all applicants for decades.

In fact, several of the most selective colleges and universities in the country are test-optional, or even test-creative, which just means that students are allowed to submit a variety of assessments, like AP scores, SAT subject tests or individual subsections instead of just an SAT or ACT. Examples of test-optional and test-creative schools include Bowdoin College, University of Chicago, Pitzer, Bryn Mawr and Trinity.

"Colleges that have adopted test-optional policies have done so because their data shows that the high school transcript is a far better indicator of college success than an SAT or ACT," explains Betsy Morgan, an independent educational consultant with College Matters in Madison, Conn.

Now, you're probably thinking, "Wow, if I apply to only test-optional schools, I can totally avoid taking the SAT or ACT!" While that is a definite possibility, such a strategy might greatly limit your target schools list.

"Why close doors? While there are amazing institutions that are test-optional, why risk finding out down the road that a great fit for you isn't a possibility because they require standardized testing?" Morgan points out.

If you're still interested in applying to only test-optional schools, keep the following factors in mind:

Grades Really Matter

When you apply without any standardized test scores, the college admissions committee has to make a decision based on other aspects of your application, especially your grades.

"If a college does not have test scores to review, they will place more emphasis on the high school transcript -- particularly the level of rigor that a student has taken on and their grades. Basically, that means that test-optional schools are a great choice for the student that has worked up to their potential in high school and their transcript shows it," Morgan explains.

If you're just hitting your stride junior or senior year when it comes to grades, or if you haven't taken any challenging classes, then a test-optional school may not be the best decision for you.

Make Considerations Following Low Test Scores

If you've been studying consistently and have taken a couple practice tests for the SAT or ACT but it's still not looking good, that's when Morgan advises students to start including test-optional colleges on their initial list. This is especially important if you feel that the tests are not reflective of your academic potential, Morgan adds.

Know the Scholarship Requirements

Even if a school is test-optional in its admission policy, you may still need to submit test scores to apply for a merit-based scholarship offered by the school. "But it is only when test scores have come in and the junior year is complete that we have the final 'to send or not to send' discussion with students," says Morgan.

Regardless of how many test-optional schools you decide to apply to, remember that scores are optional, not prohibited. If your test scores are in line with your transcript and academic potential, Morgan recommends sending them in with your application to a test-optional school.

"As a rule of thumb, if your scores are higher than the average scores of students that are admitted, send them!" You've invested a lot of time, money and energy into taking the test, so if you do well, be sure to show off your scores, even if you're applying to a test-optional school. It only makes your application look better -- and you probably already like the school for other reasons, not just its testing requirements.