Everything Students Need to Know About Colleges That Don’t Require the SAT or ACT
Over the past decade or so, hundreds of colleges have started allowing applicants to decide whether or not to submit SAT or ACT scores when applying for admission. While not having to take a standardized test may sound like music to students’ ears, there are a lot of important things to consider before sending the Common Application off without the SAT/ACT. Find out what “test-optional” really means and what you can do to make sure your application shines when not submitting test scores.
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Why More Colleges Are Going Test-Optional
In recent years, many colleges have adopted test-optional admissions policies, which means they allow prospective students to decide whether to submit standardized test scores when applying for admission. If an applicant does, the school will take the score into consideration, but if they don’t, the school won’t hold it against them. Some schools, however, only allow certain applicants to opt out, such as those with a high GPA or other notable strengths on their application. In this case, applicants who don’t meet the specified criteria will be required to send their SAT or ACT scores.
Some colleges have also adopted test-flexible policies. This type of policy allows applicants to submit other test scores – such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate exams – in lieu of the SAT or ACT. With a test-flexible policy, applicants are still required to submit scores, but they have more flexibility in which type of test to take and submit.
So how does the admissions process work at test-optional colleges? According to Kaitlyn Rice, Assistant Director of Admissions at Willamette University, “There’s not a ton that looks different during review of a test-optional application.” Willamette University went test optional in 2016, joining nearly a thousand U.S. institutions. She explains that such schools still look at all the same things they used to – GPA, strength of coursework, extracurricular activities, writing samples and references. The biggest difference is that certain parts of the application are weighted more for students who opt out of submitting test scores.
Most colleges adopt test-optional admission policies for the following reasons:
Who Doesn’t Have to Send Scores?
“Test-optional” doesn’t mean that anyone who applies will be admitted and it also doesn’t make the admissions process easier. Instead, students who withhold test scores will need to make sure the other parts of their application showcase their accomplishments, strengths and abilities. And if the application isn’t strong enough, studying hard for the SAT or ACT and submitting those scores might be the better option.
Unfortunately, there’s no hard-and-fast metric for students to follow. Rice says, “Generally speaking, when applying to a school like Willamette, if you are in the [top 25 percent] of our average, you are good on all fronts to simply submit your test scores and be done with it. By ‘all fronts,’ I mean both admittance and scholarship consideration.”
So, who would benefit from opting out?
- Students with awesome GPAs but low test scores
- Applicants with high GPAs but low scores shouldn’t feel pressured to submit their results – most test-optional colleges typically believe high school GPAs better predict future success than test scores so there’s no good reason to voluntarily submit low scores.
- Well-rounded students
- Students with evidence of success in core classes and also excelling outside of English, math and science may not need to rely on test scores. Art students and other so-called soft subject gurus can compensate for withholding scores by submitting stellar portfolios, awards and good grades in their subject area.
- Anxiety-ridden test-takers
- Students who suffer from severe test anxiety will likely feel less stress if they skipped the SAT/ACT all together. Being less stressed can also allow these students to be more focused and productive in other areas of the college application such as extracurricular activities, volunteer work and personal statements.
What to Do If You Opt Out
Thinking of opting out? Before you do, make sure you have what it takes to compete with peers who submit strong SAT/ACT scores. Here are some tips to ensure you submit the strongest possible application:
Analyze your pre-SAT results
Rice recommends students use the PSAT, usually taken sophomore year, as a benchmark for general test performance. “Depending on PSAT performance, which closely models the SAT, a student can determine if they have strong testing skills, weak testing skills but want to study for the test, or weak skills and want to focus on maintaining their GPA and applying to test-optional schools,” she says.
Take the SAT and ACT even if you already know you don't want to submit your scores
Fee waivers can make both the SAT
free so why not sit for the exam anyway? At that point, there’s not much to lose. Removing the pressure may increase your score and change your mind about submitting, giving your application an unexpected boost. It may also be useful to have a standardized score in your back pocket for scholarships and class placement – more on that in “Things to Keep in Mind”.
Focus on GPA
According to Rice, “The main focus for students should be on maintaining a strong GPA throughout their high school career, as this is where most admission offices will spend their attention.” She adds, “If you’re focusing on your day-to-day school work and succeeding in the classroom, you’re already doing the hardest part and your transcript will prove that to us.”
Take honors and advanced placement classes
Rice points out that committees will want to see a weighted GPA, which is on a different scale that includes honors, AP or IB classes. “Do you have a weighted GPA of 3.8 or higher? Then your test scores won’t impact your admission chances or scholarship qualifications very much [if] at all,” she says.
Stand out in your high school, not against every applicant
Rice points out that admission offices recognize everyone’s high school options differ so instead of trying to compete with students you’ve never met, focus on standing out in your own surroundings. “I review applications for students from a wide variety of schools – large public schools that offer AP courses and have counseling offices with huge numbers of students to work with, rural high schools that don’t have any honors level courses or any test prep, right along with the top independent boarding schools in the country that have the best college counseling a school can offer. Everyone’s high school experience looks different…We take that into consideration when reviewing applications.”
Call the admission office
Rice maintains that admission counselors are there to help students put their best foot forward. Students with low or borderline test scores and GPAs should consider simply reaching out to the schools they’re interested in applying to and asking for their opinions.
Pay attention to additional requirements
Rice’s school requires students who don’t submit test scores to write an additional essay. “Schools tend to require different things – or sometimes nothing at all – in place of test scores,” she says, “so find out what that is and spend quality time on it.”
Use the 'Additional Information' section on the Common Application
“If you feel you really need to emphasize strengths or offer more context for something in — or not in — your application, there’s an ‘Additional Information’ section on the Common App. Feel free to use that space, but also don’t feel bad if you leave it blank. (It’s left blank more often than not).”
Pros and Cons of Test-Optional Schools
Some students cheer the test-optional movement while others prefer the traditional approach. Here are the biggest pros and cons of test-optional admissions policies from a student perspective.
Students can take time off after high school
Not everyone goes straight to college. For those who decide in their 20s, 30s or later to go back to school, taking or retaking the SAT/ACT may feel more like a complete block than a hurdle because the exam concepts aren’t fresh in their minds. Test-optional admissions removes this obstacle for older applicants.
Students' futures aren't tied to one test
Most colleges have always looked at students’ applications holistically, but a particularly low SAT or ACT score can be hard for some admission committees to forget. Students who bomb the test can simply not submit scores and let their other strengths shine.
Rice adds that personal essays and other criteria offer more context than a standardized test can. “A descriptive and insightful essay will offer a better understanding of who you are as a person and your extracurricular activities and letter(s) of recommendation will support everything else about your application. All of these factors are important because they tell us what type of person we’re bringing into our campus community, and how likely you are to succeed within that community.”
Low-income and minority students have greater access to higher education
High school students from poor families, African-American students and Latino students traditionally fare poorer on standardized tests than other demographic groups for complex reasons not necessarily related to intellectual ability. Test-optional advocates argue that their approach will open more doors to postsecondary education for these populations.
Rice echoes that sentiment. “There’s a culture around standardized testing, and it will take time to break that down, but I anticipate more diversity – especially cultural and socioeconomic diversity – as more schools explore test-optional admission practices.”
The application process may be more stressful than before
Not submitting scores doesn’t mean automatic admission – getting into college is still going to be tough. If a student chooses not to send their scores, their application will need to be top-notch and those who aren’t near the top will have to go above and beyond to compete with students who submit high test scores.
Test-optional policies hurt good test-takers
Great test-takers have always had the upper hand when it comes to getting into college. Now they have to compete more directly with students who are highly qualified in other ways but might not have applied because they were worried about test scores.
Students' applications may not get a thorough look
Test-optional admissions policies means schools need to spend more time carefully vetting and assessing each application they receive. These schools, however, are being bombarded with applicants, which means committees have less time to comb through the details. As a result, students have to find new ways to stand out to ensure their application is taken seriously.
Things to Keep in Mind
Test-optional policies affect students before and after they’ve gained admission. Here are a few important things to consider about withholding test scores:
- Some merit-based scholarships require SAT/ACT scores
- That’s true even for scholarships from some test-optional schools. And even if schools suggest that everyone will be considered for merit-based scholarships, it’s hard to know if non-submitters are at a disadvantage. It’s for this reason that the Princeton Review recommends all students take the SAT/ACT, regardless of the school’s admission policy. Even if scores aren’t required for financial aid, Rice recommends using a college’s net price calculator to find out how test scores may affect merit-based aid. “Colleges should all have a net price calculator and students can plug in their data with test scores and GPA, then go through it again with just their GPA,” she says. “That’ll give them an estimate for their merit aid.”
- Class placement may be at stake
- Many colleges use SAT/ACT scores to determine which courses new students should enroll in. Without a score, students may wind up in courses that don’t reflect their actual academic level.
- NCAA Division I and II athletes have to submit
- The NCAA requires Division II athletes send their test scores directly to schools, even if students don’t submit scores with their application. To be eligible for college sports, the NCAA requires Division I and II athletes score according to a sliding scale that also takes GPA into account.
- Out-of-state students may have to submit
- If you’re a nonresident applying to a test-optional school, make sure to read the fine print. As of 2017, several dozen test-optional public universities – most notably in Ohio, Idaho, Louisiana and Kansas – required nonresidents to submit standardized test scores.
- Students may be able to choose which scores to send
- Both the SAT and ACT use Score Choice, which allows students to send only their best results to the schools they’re applying to. (The traditional practice, which many schools still require, is to submit all results). Some schools even accept “superscores” which combine the best results from individual test sections across different test dates.