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Test-Optional College Admission and Socioeconomic Status

Many students still feel pressure to submit test scores even if a college is test-optional. Here's how to decide what to do based on your socioeconomic status.

This May, the Regents of the University of California school system voted to phase out the SAT and ACT over the next five years. Working to eliminate the socioeconomic bias latent in the SAT and ACT, the schools will endeavor to create their own admission test in place of the well-known standardized tests. Currently, 55% of all four-year colleges are test-optional, an increase of 37% last year. While the test-optional trend started much earlier, the coronavirus pandemic certainly accelerated the slow-moving trend that has taken root over the past few years. Now the question remains: Is test-optional an option for you?

What does test-optional mean?

Higher education institutions that are test-optional don’t require students to submit SAT or ACT scores. Students may still submit scores, but they won’t be penalized in the admission review process for not submitting. While some schools are making the move toward test-optional policies due to limited testing site availability during the pandemic, others have done so due to the correlation often seen between low test scores and income. In other words, students from low-income families are more likely to underperform on standardized tests in comparison to those from high-income families. For most students, deciding whether or not to take the ACT or SAT is determined by the advantages and disadvantages, many of which are based on socioeconomic status and background.

Related: What Are Test-Optional Colleges All About?

Advantages of submitting test scores

Depending on your socioeconomic status and race, the choice to opt out of testing could benefit or hurt your chances of college admission. So, should you take the SAT or ACT? Think about the goals of your college application: to put your best foot forward and show your interest and talent in academic and extracurricular pursuits. In almost all cases, taking the SAT or ACT is in line with this goal. It shows that you’re able to perform well in stressful situations and over long durations. It also illustrates that you have mastered the basic concepts and knowledge expected of a college student. Most importantly, it shows that you’re willing to go above and beyond the minimum requirements to demonstrate your commitment to your education. With that being said—are the SAT and ACT really optional when applying to a “test-optional” school? Technically, but it may not feel that way.

Advantages of not submitting test scores

A 2013 study showed that the gap in test scores between income levels was much larger for Black students than White students. This is unsurprising given that low income and underrepresented minority students frequently lack access to resources compared to more privileged students. Both income and race play a significant role in how students prepare for standardized testing. The logic behind not submitting test scores tends to revolve around equity: minority students and those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged often underperform on standardized tests due to lack of additional test prep help. These are the students for whom the SAT and ACT are truly optional—that is, the test can only help you. Said differently, it’s an option composed solely of upside.

Related: The Most Confusing Parts of the College Application Process

Testing advice based on socioeconomic status and background

If you’re still unsure whether or not to pursue SAT or ACT testing, here’s some advice specific to each family income bracket you might fall into.

Low-income families

If you’re from a low-income family or have experienced hardships that make it unreasonable to expect strong performance on the SAT or ACT, the test-optional policy was designed to benefit you. This doesn’t mean you should totally ignore the SAT or ACT; showing off your ability to perform well in a high-pressure testing environment “gives students an edge in admission,” according to EdSource.

Schools recognize how arduous it is for a student who, say, has to work after school to help his family to allocate time and resources for SAT prep. So if you have the time or are a naturally gifted tester, head to your local library and check out a test prep book. You can also find free resources online to help you prepare. The SAT and ACT also offer waivers for low-income students to take the test for free, giving your already strong application an added boost.

Middle-income families

If you fall in a middle-income bracket or are from a background that it would be understandable if you didn’t have scores on the SAT or ACT, you have the most flexibility when deciding whether or not to take a standardized test. Middle-income students can opt out of testing, and it should not affect their admission to test-optional schools.

However, if you fall into this category, there’s the potential—and almost the expectation—that you could improve your admission standing by demonstrating high standardized test scores. For example, a student with an average GPA but above-average SAT or ACT scores will benefit from submitting their test scores with their college application. If your academic qualifications are below average for your college or university of choice, now’s the time to start devoting plenty of time to SAT or ACT test prep. As a middle-income student, you may have the ability to afford test prep courses and private tutoring. If you choose not to take the SAT or ACT and are from a middle-income family but don’t have a compelling reason to have opted out of testing, then your application could suffer for it. 

Related: What Standardized Test Should You Take (Or Not?)

High-income families

If your family falls into the highest income bracket, you’ll be at a disadvantage if you don’t submit test scores—even if you’re only applying to testing-optional schools. Furthermore, if you take the SAT or ACT and perform poorly, you’ll still be at a disadvantage. 

For more privileged students, the college admission process is becoming increasingly competitive; you’re expected to take the test and score well. Luckily, you have the economic resources to prepare you for the test—and start early. A 2010 research study showed that SAT and ACT group prep courses boost test scores, but not as much as private tutoring does. If you have the ability to afford private tutoring, it’s definitely the best bet for improving your scores and your chances of admission.

Is test-optional really “optional” for me?

As a high school student or parent, this all might seem overwhelming. And you may be wondering, should I still prepare for and take the SAT or ACT if my school of choice has adopted a test-optional admission policy? What does this all mean specifically for you? It likely comes down to asking yourself this: Is it reasonable to expect someone from your background to prepare for and score well on the SAT or ACT? 

If you’ve decided to take a standardized test, check out our SAT Word Game to help you study.

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