student in grey top writing

Test-optional policies in US college admissions – not so optional after all?

This article was updated on June 4th, 2020. Please scroll to the bottom of the latest update. 

In our previous blog post, we discussed how the SAT and ACT Spring test cancellations had an impact on college admissions. As a response, many universities, including selective schools such as Cornell and USC have announced changes in their admissions policies to being test-optional. Since then, more schools have adopted this policy despite the SAT and ACT taking steps to accommodate students planning on taking these exams this coming fall. You can find the most updated list of test-optional schools here.

So what does this transition to “test-optional” really mean for you?

Depending on the college, this could mean different things. And there are several different wordings.

“Test-optional” often implies that the student gets to decide whether or not they will submit a test score with their college application. If a test score is submitted, it will be considered alongside other components in the student profile. If no test scores are submitted, admissions would simply consider the information as omitted. Most schools that have adopted this policy note that this will be in place for the next 1-3 years, or at least until standardized testing is available for all students again.

“Test-flexible” implies that other types of standardized tests could be accepted in the place of the SAT or the ACT. For instance, you could submit AP tests, IB, A-Levels, and other public examination results instead. New York University is a noted example of a ‘test flexible’ school. Different schools have their own specific requirements, but this option can be helpful for students who do not test well in more traditional standardized tests but show promise in other subject-specific examinations.

“Test-blind” schools do not consider test scores even when submitted.

To submit or not submit?

Now, this is where you really need to read the fine print.

With plans for the administration of the SAT/ACT examinations, whether in-person or online, before application deadlines this fall, it could be speculated that many competitive schools that are listed as “test-optional” may still prefer that students submit standardized tests scores. For example, Cornell University stated that while they are test-optional, “results from the ACT or SAT might still be a meaningful differentiator” in admissions decisions.

Historically, it is worthwhile to note that those who submit scores typically have higher averages than those who opt not to. In addition, overall, students who submitted scores were admitted by colleges at a higher rate than those who did not submit scores. By not submitting scores, you could be placed at a disadvantage, especially if you are aiming for a selective school, and if your access to testing was not hindered by COVID-19.

Here are our suggestions:

1.  If you have access to testing, make plans to take the test.

  • Schools that normally require the SAT/ACT will likely expect students to submit, except if circumstances keep you from taking the test.
  • Not all colleges have announced going test-optional – you may still need SAT/ACT scores for certain colleges.

2.  If your test scores are above the median for the school’s admitted students, you should submit the scores. If your scores are at the median or even slightly below, you should still submit your scores. If you are well below the median, you can consider not submitting scores.

  • But note that students omitting test scores will likely have to find ways to stand out through other components of their profile, such as extracurricular activities.

In our next post, we will continue on the subject of how COVID-19 has impacted US college applications. Stay tuned!

UPDATE (as of June 4, 2020)

The June ACT exam has been cancelled in most US test centers. International test centers, with very few exceptions, are highly likely to follow suit. Make sure you check your email (including your junk inbox!) for any official notifications from ACT.

SAT has also announced that they will not be administering an online / at-home exam in the coming fall. An additional exam date is added for January 2021.