When to Apply Test-Optional
March 25, 2021

When to Apply-Test Optional


By now, the idea of test-optional admission is very widely known. What started off as a small but vocal movement has rapidly shifted into widespread adoption in lieu of pandemic-related restrictions on testing sites and the availability to sit for an exam. Given that we’re now seeing colleges extending one year policies for a second year and even multi-year test-optional pilot programs, now’s a great time for you to think about how the ability to apply without test scores may or may not impact your college search process. 

Why Colleges Offer Test-Optional as an Option

It’s important to remember that when a college offers a test-optional policy that optional is the imperative word.  Unlike most aspects of college admission where “optional” usually indicates an implicit requirement or strong encouragement, test-optional stays true to the real definition of the word. What colleges are doing with a test-optional policy is giving you another tool in your tool belt, recognizing that a set of scores from a single Saturday morning isn’t the best way for every student to showcase their academic potential. In this light, standardized tests like the SAT or ACT shouldn’t be completely disregarded because having a good score can help to back up what the admission committee is going to learn from your transcript and all of those strong grades and hard work over the years. However, as you take the tests, if you find after your first or second sitting that this just isn’t the right tool for you to use to show your ability to succeed, searching for colleges with strong test-optional policies can help you to shift your priorities to other priorities like taking advanced courses or pursuing more meaningful engagement outside of the classroom.

Deciding if Test Optional Makes Sense for You Now that we know why and how colleges use test-optional policies, we can understand how to determine if using such a policy is the right choice. Let’s pretend that you’re a prospective applicant to Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. Looking at their enrolled student profile, the middle 50% of typical enrolled students at F&M had scores fall  between a 1250-1390 on the SAT and a 29-31 Composite score on the ACT.  At first glance, you may be tempted to interpret this to mean that having scores below this range means you’re bound to get denied. That’s not the case!  Keep in mind that for this to be the middle 50% of enrolled students, there had to be 25% who had lower scores and 25% of enrolls with higher scores.  Now let’s imagine that your scores are lower than their middle 50%.  Sending in your scores in this scenario will start to depict your application as below their typical profile unless there’s a really compelling reason to overlook them (perhaps you fit an institutional priority like adding socioeconomic or other forms of diversity, have strong family connections to the institution, are a recruited athlete, or otherwise add something rare to their class).  Without something overly compelling in your application, your scores aren’t likely to add much value to the context of your application.  In this case, the use of a college’s test-optional policy will give you the ability to signal to the admission committee this message: “Hey! Put all the academic weight on my transcript because I know it’s the best indicator of my performance.”   That’s it, they simply have to use everything else in your application as context to support a decision to admit you.  They also aren’t going to assume you got a bad score; after all, they’re looking to offer admission in the office of admission.

Understanding The Caveats In addition to knowing when you should consider applying under a test-optional policy, it’s important to remember that every college can have their own nuances to their policy. Sometimes, applying test-optional could preclude you from merit scholarship consideration or selection into certain majors.  You also might need to submit scores if you want to also be considered for an honors program. With a thorough read of the college’s test-optional policy on their admission website, details like this will be clearly spelled out for you so you can decide if those caveats are deal breakers or not in your college search search. FairTest.org also has a great list of colleges that have some form of test optional policy and there’s a legend at the bottom to help you understand if applying this way comes with some caveats to understand.  Rest assured, test-optional admission policies are designed to be student-centered and one more lever you can pull as  you craft the best applications that tell your authentic story.

Want more help with your college search process?  Book a Free Consultation with Dave DeBor, our Director of College Counseling, for a chance to get to know a college admission expert and learn about our College Counseling one on one services!