What Does Test-Optional Really Mean?

It’s not a secret that we’ve all had to make major life adjustments the past couple of years. With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing us to adapt how we interact, certain things have also changed in the way universities handle admissions – particularly when it comes to standardized test scores and college applications.

As COVID restrictions have made it difficult for students to take their ACT or SATs, more universities have adapted their admissions policies, which has resulted in many schools going ‘test-optional.’

But, what does test-optional really mean for you, the applicant?

Understanding Test-Optional

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Simply, test-optional is a term used by universities to indicate that applicants do not need to submit their SAT or ACT test scores. If they don’t, it will not be held against them.

Test-optional university policies have been around for a lot longer than just these past few years. The movement originated in 2001, when the President of the University of California, Richard Atkinson, suggested that colleges drop their ACT and SAT requirements and better align admissions testing with the high school curricula.

The test-optional movement has grown popular among advocacy groups who urge universities to consider that many lower-income students can’t afford the SAT or ACT, or lack the financial resources to invest in test prep resources. This movement established two camps: universities that adopted test-optional policies before COVID (like UChicago) and those who adopted them after.

However, test-optional policies are still only part of several new waves of university acceptance policies. Other new policies include schools that are:

  • Test Blind: These universities will not review your test scores, even if you do submit them.
  • Test Flexible: These schools require test scores but are flexible on their source. For example, they accept SAT and ACT and International Baccalaureate exams, Advanced Placement tests, or SAT Subject Tests.

While the concept of test-optional admissions has been around for more than 20 years, it was only in 2021 that most universities in the United States openly adopted the policy. Over 600 top-tier universities switched to test-optional during the pandemic, and Harvard recently announced that they will remain test-optional for at least the next four admissions cycles.

However, many schools haven’t announced their plans for 2023. While some elite universities have said that they have or will return to pre-COVID test policies as early as this next admissions cycle. Others, like Harvard, have extended their test-optional policies.

How Do Test-Optional Policies Change Admissions?

What do test-optional admissions look like in practice? Well, that can be tricky to pin down. Different universities handle the process in different ways. For example:

  • Some universities only extend the test-optional application process to qualified applicants based on GPA, class ranking, and test scores throughout their final year of high school.
  • Some test-optional universities require standardized test results from international applicants or students pursuing specific majors.
  • Rarely, universities require additional information, like placement exams for first-year students, extra recommendation letters, research papers, samples of academic work, etc.

As you can see, the term test-optional university does not indicate the same blanket standards. Depending on your circumstances, you may still be required to take a standardized test even at a test-optional university.

Regardless, since COVID’s onset, these restrictions have generally been loosened, but a range of different policies still exist.

What are Holistic Admissions?

Admissions officers examine your entire application, valuing your attributes more evenly – in addition to your test scores. These areas can include:

  • grades and grade trends from your transcripts.
  • extracurricular activities and participation.
  • Indicators of academic achievement, like course rigor and AP scores.
  • essays.
  • personal achievements.
  • recommendation letters.

Essentially, admissions officers evaluate you as a complete person rather than primarily relying on your test scores. This means you should work to stand out through grades, extracurricular activities, research projects, passions, interests, and values because these other factors will be more important when applying to test-optional universities.

Should You Still Submit Your Scores?

So, the entire purpose of test-optional is that the test scores are, . . . well, . . . optional. So, should you even bother taking the SAT or ACT if they aren’t required?

The short answer is, “Yes.” You should absolutely take one or both of these tests if you can. There is still a lot you can show through your test scores that may help you get into a university – even a test-optional university. Sending in your ACT and SAT score can show that:

  • you test well, even under pressure.
  • you are proficient in basic concepts such as math, English, writing, etc.
  • you are eager to go above and beyond the bare minimum.
  • you are willing to differentiate yourself from your peers.
  • you don’t shy away from complex tasks.

Aside from these points, some universities may still require SAT or ACT scores for specific merit scholarships, and certain state schools – like those in Georgia and Florida and military academies – require them for admission. So, not submitting these test scores will disqualify you if the university you are applying to requires it.

Is the Future Test-Optional? 

Most experts agree that test-optional is the wave of the educational future. It is the policy toward which most universities are shifting, even top-tier and Ivy League schools. This allows the university freedom to properly weigh a student’s application rather than just relying on testing scores.

Despite this, it’s still good to prepare for your SATs or ACTs. At the very least, the preparation will help hone your basic skills, and taking the test will give you one more element to add to your application.

We at HelloCollege know how difficult it can be to prepare for college and aim to make the process as simple and easy as possible. So, check out our wealth of knowledge here, and reach out to us with your college admissions questions and concerns. We want to help you get accepted into the university of your dreams! 

Please read our other articles about standardized testing.

ACT vs. SAT: Which do Elite Universities Prefer?

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HelloCollege CEO Andrea Emmons has spent the last 15 years guiding students and families across the country on their path to college. Andrea knows the profound impact proactive college planning has on the lives of students and is passionate about mentoring families through the process.
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Inspired by his parents, Kevin’s journey from a first-gen, diverse, low-income background to Northwestern University shaped him. After experiencing challenges, including student loan debt, he founded HelloCollege and has spent the last 25 years helping students successfully navigate college admissions.

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