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:
The argument that standardized tests are poor predictors of student success is nothing new, and research continues to come out in support of test-optional admission. For example, 2016 research from Indiana University suggested that SAT scores have a poor track record of predicting college students' freshman grades. Past research has also shown that standardized test scores don't predict college success any better than high school GPA.
The College Board, maker of the SAT, disagrees, however. Its senior vice president for research says, "The College Board's new pilot predictive validity study found that the SAT predicts first-year success in college as well as [high school] GPA does, and that looking at SAT scores in conjunction with [high school] GPA is the best predictor overall."
Many colleges believe test-optional policies attract low-income and minority students who either may not be able to take the SAT or ACT or don't do well on standardized tests but are strong students otherwise. A 2014 study of 33 colleges with test-optional policies found that minority and low-income students were more likely to withhold test scores when applying and also that the policies seemed to be leading to increased enrollment of such students. Other research, however, has been contradictory.
There's also a third factor that critics say is driving the test-optional movement – it increases school prestige by driving down acceptance rates. Reducing barriers to admission increases the applicant pool but doesn't necessarily increase available seats. Schools can then reject more applicants, which makes them appear more selective in rankings, according to Stephen Burd an analyst with the Education Policy Program.
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:
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.