What Does Test Optional Really Mean?

Student, Notre Dame High School

Oct   2015



Well, what does test optional really mean? Before researching this topic, I had very little knowledge of it and the role it plays in the college admission process. Although the meaning of “test optional” may seem obvious, the truth about whether or not this admission policy is actually beneficial to an applicant is surprising.

Basically, test-optional policies give college applicants the choice of whether or not to submit their standardized test scores (ACT or SAT) with their application for admission. Colleges that have this option include American University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Bowdoin College. There is another type of test-optional school called test flexible. These schools do not require the ACT or SAT but require other exams (AP, SAT Subject Tests, etc.) be submitted. Such schools include New York University, Middlebury College, and Hamilton College. A full list of all test-optional or test-flexible schools is available at FairTest.org.

Schools that do not require standardized tests may seem like the perfect option for anyone worried about their scores, but choosing not to submit your test scores can sometimes be detrimental to your admission chances. Students who struggle with standardized testing or who have low ACT or SAT scores may be the ones who benefit most from test-optional policies—provided their academic and extracurricular performance compensate for not submitting their test scores. But for a student who also has a lower GPA and lacking extracurricular achievements, solid SAT or ACT test scores may be the redeeming quality that helps them secure admission. (Editor’s note: there’s also been some controversy surrounding test-optional schools recently, as they may have artificially inflated academic profiles: they may attract more applicants—and be able to reject more of them—making them appear more selective, plus it will be the high-scoring students who opt to send their scores anyway, making their average admitted student profile more competitive.)

Overall, if a college is test-optional, students might be better off submitting test scores, as long as they are not very low. Since the school is test optional, these scores shouldn’t count against the applicant and in many cases will help improve their application. If test scores are included, it lessens the weight of the other parts of the application, making it more balanced overall. If an applicant does score lower on their test than they hoped, test-optional colleges give them a chance to demonstrate their strengths in other areas without the negative light cast by a low standardized test score.

Test-optional schools might make it seem like students have no reason to take the SAT or ACT, but that is not the case. Students should plan on taking one of the common standardized tests before applying to colleges, even if just for scholarship purposes. High test scores will definitely be a plus to a student’s college application and can also help them receive more scholarships as well. Even if a student is concerned that they will do poorly on the tests, it won’t hurt to take one (and if cost is an issue, there are even fee waiver programs) and can end up being beneficial in the long run.

For standardized test help, including study tips and tricks, check out our Test Prep section here.

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About Alexa Rana

My name is Alexa, and I am currently a high school student going through the college search process.