Test Prep

Test-Optional Colleges for International Student with So-So SAT Score

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I am ranked at the top of my class in India and have won several debate competitions. My grades are excellent but my test scores are really bad. I have taken quite a few college prep tests and can never score well on them. For example, my SAT is a 1230 and that's the highest I've gotten after retaking it twice. I know it's because I get so nervous and have test anxiety. I'm wondering about test-optional colleges in the US. Are these an option for me as an international applicant? My counselor says yes, but what I have heard from other students is no. I would like to go to University of Chicago or some other test-optional school if possible.

Many students — and even educators, too — insist that standardized tests scores don't always reflect a student's true abilities. It's common for strong students like you to suffer from "text anxiety" when sitting for any high-stakes exam. And the SAT and ACT can indeed seem "high stakes" when you realize that your college outcomes may be tied, at least in part, to the results.

Over the past decade or so, college officials are increasingly questioning the validity of standardized tests, and a growing number of US colleges and universities are adopting "Test-Optional" policies (and a handful don't accept any scores at all). However, some of the colleges that are test-optional for domestic applicants still require tests for international applicants, and The University of Chicago is among them. But UChicago's policy is "test-flexible," meaning that you can submit results other than the SAT. Here are your choices:

In addition to an English proficiency test score, international students may elect to submit one of several other forms of testing in lieu of an SAT or ACT score:

  • Predicted or final International Baccalaureate scores.
  • Predicted or final A-Level/A2 scores.
  • Scores from three or more SAT Subject Tests in different subject areas (with at least one in Mathematics or Science and at least one in English, History, Social Sciences, Arts, or World Languages and Cultures).
  • For students whose school offers Advanced Placement (AP) classes as part of your curriculum, scores from three or more AP exams in different subject areas (with at least one in Math, Computer Science, or Science and at least one in English, History, or Language).

As a junior this year, you may even get lucky. Testing requirements are changing rapidly, so you may find that colleges that require tests now may drop that requirement by the time you apply next fall or winter. Here is a helpful list of schools that are currently test-optional or test-flexible for international students.

But keep in mind that, as you begin to identify target colleges, don't rely on lists like this one alone; it is YOUR responsibility to read websites carefully to made sure you are adhering to the latest policies. (And even test-optional colleges may require an English proficiency exam for students, regardless of citizenship, whose first language isn't English or who haven't attended an English-curriculum high school. Some colleges may also require test scores for certain merit scholarships.)

Also keep in mind that US college admissions can be especially cutthroat for students from India. Each year, the most selective (and popular) US institutions receive thousands of applications from outstanding Indian contenders. So even with perfect SAT scores and excellent grades, admission to U. of Chicago and its peer institutions needs to be considered a long-shot for almost everyone, and particularly for students from India.

Moreover, even when a college claims a "test-optional" policy, it could still work against you to apply without test scores when many of your "competitors" will be submitting good scores. The fact that you are ranked at the top of your class will work in your favor, but undoubtedly there will be high-ranked students among your competitors as well. So your admission chances will be best at the sought-after colleges if your debate success is truly impressive or if there are other aspects of your application that stand out in a crowd.

It would be irresponsible to recommend specific colleges to you without knowing a lot more about you. But, with this disclaimer in place, "The Dean" will toss out some suggestions anyway. If you like U. of Chicago, you might want to consider some of these other places on the test-optional/test-flexible list:

- American University (Washington, D.C.)

- Boston University (Boston, Mass.)

- George Washington University (Washington, D.C.)

- New York University (New York, N.Y. )

- Northeastern University (Boston, Mass.)

- Tulane University (New Orleans, La.).

All of these are mid-to-large universities that are located in major cities, just like U. of Chicago. The College Board designates them as "Most Selective" or "Very Selective," and you should expect the competition to be quite keen.

Here are some other urban universities to consider. The College Board calls them "Somewhat Selective" or "Less Selective" but they are well known and well regarded and offer test-optional or test-flexible admission for international students:

- Arizona State University (Phoenix, Ariz.)

- U. of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, Ohio)

- Creighton U. (Omaha, Neb.)

- DePaul U. (Chicago, Ill.)

- Drexel U. (Philadelphia, Pa.)

- George Mason U (Fairfax, Va.)

- Loyola U. (Chicago, Ill.)

- Marquette U (Milwaukee, Wis.)

- Saint Joseph's U (Philadelphia, Pa.)

- U. of San Francisco (San Francisco, Calif.)

- St. John's U (New York, N.Y.)

- Temple U (Philadelphia, Pa.)

You don't mention whether or not you are applying for financial aid, and that's a key concern. If you are, this could affect your chances of admission more than so-so test scores do. Even colleges that are "need-blind" for US citizens are frequently "need-aware" for international candidates and usually set the bar for them far higher than for US citizens, even those expecting aid. Typically, international students who are seeking financial aid should aim for colleges where the median grades and test scores are below their own. If you are applying for aid at test-optional schools and have decided to NOT submit scores, focus on places where your GPA is well above the median. But at some of the colleges on the second list, above, you'll find that your 1230 SAT may be a plus for you. So don't automatically tick the "Test-Optional" box until you've explored where your scores actually fit.

Bottom Line: When advising international students in general — and Indian students in particular — "The Dean" insists that even those with great grades, high ranks and super test scores need to create a list that is top-heavy with colleges that the College Board labels as "Somewhat Selective" and "Less Selective." I wish you well with U. of Chicago and with all of your other favorites, but try to keep an open mind to new possibilities — schools that will welcome you, regardless of your SAT results, and which could turn out to be great matches for you, too.

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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 send it along here.