Rarely does a week pass without another well-known college or university making headlines by announcing that it will no longer require applicants to submit standardized test scores. This movement, known as going “test-optional,” actually began almost 50 years ago at Bowdoin College and has rapidly gained momentum over the last decade. In just the last couple of years, schools such as George Washington University, James Madison, Emerson College, and the University of Delaware have joined the more than 950 test-optional schools in the U.S.

The test-optional cohort includes many of the nation’s most selective liberal arts institutions such as Wesleyan, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Dickinson, Trinity, and Pitzer as well as many prestigious universities like Wake Forest and American University. Other elite schools have adopted “test-flexible” policies (explained in more detail later), including Middlebury, Hamilton, and Colorado College.

If you are considering subtracting the SAT/ACT from your admissions equation, you need to first make sure that you fully grasp: 1) the institutional motivations behind the policy; 2) whether this path will actually help a student with your unique credentials; 3) the difference between test-optional and test-flexible polices; and 4) the potential impact that going test-free can have on financial aid.

Why colleges go test-optional

Institutions eliminating or de-emphasizing standardized tests often cite a lack of confidence in the SAT’s and ACT’s ability to predict college success as well as a desire to improve campus diversity. The preponderance of research regarding the predictive power of the SAT supports the test-optional pathway, as high school performance is a better indicator of collegiate success. Yet on the diversity front, research, including a widely publicized College Transitions study shows that test-optional polices may not actually increase the enrollment of underrepresented students and, in some cases, may even have the exact opposite effect.

So, if the research isn’t supporting one of the stated institutional aims of test-optional policies, then why do schools keep adopting them? Allow us to look at the situation through a more cynical lens…

Test-optional admissions allow institutions to avoid owning the SATs/ACTs of their presumably lower-scoring students. On average, applicants who elect not to divulge their results, scored 100-150 points lower than those who do include SATs in their application. Thus, test-optional schools are able to boast artificially higher average SATs for admitted students which, in turn, makes them appear more selective and helps them in the rankings race.

Will test-optional benefit you?

Colleges, especially those of the highly-selective variety, are looking for compelling reasons to accept you as an applicant. Generally, colleges like having more information, not less. With this in mind, if you are planning not to submit SAT or ACT scores to a prospective college, ask yourself—what other components of my application stand out? Determine whether your grades, essays, and/or extracurricular record can truly distinguish you as an applicant and will inspire your prospective colleges to vote “yes.” These application materials will be even more heavily scrutinized now that your admissions officers are without an essential piece of information, which although biased, can still provide for meaningful comparisons between you and the rest of the applicant pool.

A test score-free application is going to be transcript-reliant which is fine for students hailing from most public and private high schools across the United States. Colleges have a general understanding of the curriculum, level of rigor, and grading standards at most U.S. secondary schools. However, as Dr. Andrew Belasco, CEO of College Transitions recently told the The Washington Diplomat, international or non-traditional students (i.e. homeschoolers) do not share this luxury, making going test-optional a less legitimate option in these circumstances.

Test-optional vs. test-flexible

A number of selective colleges, including The University of Rochester, Colby, and NYU, do not require the SAT or ACT, but still require applicants to submit results from one or more other exams, such as AP or IB exams and SAT Subject Tests. Before developing an admissions strategy, make sure that you are familiar with the exact testing requirements at each of your prospective colleges and that you learn whether the submission of test scores is truly optional. These policies are ever-evolving so it is important to stay on top of the most current policy information.

There are also institutional variations of test-optional policies. Lewis & Clark College in Oregon requires test-optional applicants to submit a portfolio containing, among other things, an analytical writing sample as well as an example of scientific work. George Mason only allows standardized tests to be excluded from ones application if that individual has a minimum GPA of 3.5 and ranks in the top 20% of their high school class and is entering a program other than engineering or information technology. The prestigious Worcester Polytechnic Institute is one of the few science and engineering schools to be test-optional, but strongly encourages students to submit independent research, mechanical designs, inventions, or other supplementary materials that will help distinguish them as an applicant. Brandeis offers students three options: submit the SAT/ACT, three Subject Tests of your choice, or a writing sample and an extra letter of recommendation.

Impact on merit aid

If you’re needy and/or cost-conscious, make sure you understand the potential financial implications of withholding your test scores. Some test-optional colleges still award merit aid on the basis of standardized test scores, at least in part. Unfortunately, this is an under-researched topic and little valid data exists on the precise impact of SAT score submission on merit aid awards.

The vast majority of test-optional colleges state on their website something to the effect of “Students who do not submit SAT/ACT scores will still be considered for merit scholarships.” Yet, it’s hard to know if this means that they are on equal footing with score-submitters or if they merely are not eliminated from consideration. Other schools, for example, Providence College state that, “Students who choose not to submit SAT or ACT scores will still receive full consideration for admission and merit scholarships,” full being the operative word. Hofstra University explains that consideration for merit awards is automatic for all students, but only those that submit scores are eligible for the scholarships bringing the top monetary awards.

In the absence of real data on the subject, it is hard to draw any conclusions, but it is fair to state that not submitting standardized test data may put you at a disadvantage for at least some merit-based scholarships.

The bottom line

Test-optional and test-flexible policies allow institutions to accept sub-par standardized test takers who are otherwise strong applicants without hurting their institutional statistics. Skeptics will also point out that, in this system, colleges have a financial incentive to take on more students without financial need whose scores may not be up to snuff without any blow to their perception of selectivity.

If you are individual who, for one reason or another, cannot achieve SAT/ACT scores that are commensurate with your ability as a student, then exploring the test-optional route makes good sense. However, unless you possess a blank check to cover your four years of study, due diligence on each test-optional/flexible school to which you apply is essential.

For more information, visit College Transitions’ list of selective, test-optional colleges. For a complete list of the nation’s test-optional schools, visit FairTest.org.

Dave Bergman
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).