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How to Navigate Test-Optional Policies

Posted by Kimberly Hewitt on Tuesday, March 07, 2023

230307 Test-Optional



30-Second Summary


What's Happening


Since 2020, many colleges have made the SAT/ACT "optional" for admission. However, at competitive "test-optional" colleges, most students still submit SAT/ACT scoresand are admitted at higher rates.


Why It Matters


Families need to understand how to navigate test-optional policies given their individual goals and circumstances.


The Main Takeaway


All students should take a practice SAT and ACT.  Most students should take the official SAT or ACT.  Prepare for the SAT/ACT if your baseline scores are below the norms at your colleges of interest (or below the cut-off for your scholarships of interest).  For each college you apply to, decide strategically whether to submit your official scores.


What You'll Learn in This Article


This article defines key test-optional terms and walks through a step-by-step approach to navigating practice testing, official testing, and score submission based on your goals.


Read On






Watch This Blog as a Video






What Is the Recent History Behind Test-Optional?


Prior to spring 2020 (when the COVID-19 pandemic began), the vast majority of four-year colleges required standardized test scores as a part of the college application. Test-optional policies were limited to a small group of private liberal arts colleges. Additionally, many colleges used a combination of GPA and test scores to determine institutional merit scholarship eligibility (e.g., Western Undergraduate Exchange).


Due to the pandemic, several nationwide SAT/ACT dates were disrupted in 2020 and 2021.  These disruptions prevented students from testing, so most colleges implemented temporary “test-optional” policies in this context.  While some colleges have resumed requiring the SAT/ACT (see below for examples), many colleges have developed a range of temporary or permanent standardized testing policies.


What Testing Policies Are Colleges Currently Using?


Test-Optional Spectrum

The Spectrum of Testing Requirements


Colleges follow one of several policies for SAT/ACT testing:

Tests Required


Some colleges never stopped requiring SAT/ACT scores, and some colleges have returned to requiring them.  Examples of these colleges include:

  • Private universities: Georgetown, MIT
  • State universities: Auburn, University System of Georgia (UGA, Georgia Tech, etc.), State University System of Florida (University of Florida, Florida State, etc.), University of Tennessee system
  • Military academies: West Point, U.S. Air Force Academy


Tests Preferred


These colleges express an explicit preference for SAT/ACT scores (you may still be able to apply test optional with exceptions or submit alternate documentation).  Examples of these colleges include:


  • Yale
  • University of Chicago
  • Carleton College
  • Purdue (For class of 2024, Purdue will return to requiring SAT/ACT scores)




We encourage students to take standardized tests, like the SAT and ACT, and to share your scores with us if you think that they are reflective of your ability and potential. Given that many of our peers do require testing, we anticipate that the vast majority of students will continue to take tests and may still submit their test scores to UChicago.


-University of Chicago admissions website


Test-Optional (Often with Exceptions)


These colleges will consider SAT/ACT scores if submitted—and at competitive "test-optional" colleges, most students still submit SAT/ACT scores.  These students are also admitted at higher rates. If scores are not submitted, these colleges frequently scrutinize other aspects of the application more closely (e.g., grades, GPA, rigor of coursework, AP/IB exam scores).  There are many exceptions where universities that are overall "test-optional" still require the SAT/ACT.  A few of these exceptions are listed below.


Georgetown and Penn accepted students who submitted SAT/ACT scores at about 2x and 1.6x the rate of students who did not submit test scores, respectively.1,2  


While more than just tests account for these differences, if you can achieve strong SAT/ACT scores, it makes sense to submit them.


Exception #1: Some colleges still require SAT/ACT scores for admission to competitive majors (e.g., engineering, computer science, nursing, business).


  • SAT/ACT scores are required to apply to the University of Michigan Ross School of Business and Indiana University Kelly School of Business.

  • Strong Math/Science test scores will be more impactful towards STEM-related majors, especially at colleges that admit direct-to-major.


Exception #2: Many colleges request SAT/ACT scores after admission for course placement.


  • Although students may be admitted without test scores, many colleges base freshman English/math course placement on SAT/ACT scores. Students who choosee not to take the SAT/ACT while in high school may be required to take a standardized test later, when their math skills are not at their peak, and risk being placed into a lower (non-credit earning) math course.


Exception #3: Some colleges/states require SAT/ACT scores for merit scholarship eligibility.


  • Alaska Performance Scholarship: While University of Alaska is test-optional and open admissions, qualification for Alaska Performance Scholarship currently requires certain GPA and test score cut-offs.

  • Western Undergraduate Exchange: While many WUE schools award the discounted tuition rate automatically, some popular WUE institutions treat the tuition discount as a merit-based scholarship.  These schools use a combination of application assets (including test scores) to determine qualification (e.g., University of Wyoming: GPA determines the qualifying SAT/ACT score).


Exception #4: Most colleges require test scores from homeschool students to demonstrate subject matter proficiency. 




These colleges will not consider test scores for admissions purposes. They may still use or request test scores after application for course placement or scholarship eligibility. 


Currently, 44 total colleges (around 1.5% of four-year institutions) are test-blind.  These colleges include all public universities in California (CalTech, Cal State, and UC systems), Hampshire College, Loyola University, Worcester Polytechnic University, and Washington State University.



Why Is Testing Relevant Today?


There are a few reasons SAT/ACT testing remains highly relevant for college admissions:


Test-Optional ≠ Test-Blind


Submitting strong test scores (in the context of excellent grades and other application materials) is still extremely valuable at competitive colleges—even for those colleges that are "test-optional" on the surface. According to the Common App, in 2022 about half of all college applicants still reported their SAT/ACT scores.


Students Who Submit Strong Scores Are Admitted at Higher Rates


Admissions data at many selective colleges over the past 2 years show a clear advantage in the application process for students who submit test scores. Strong scores are more valuable than the absence of scores. Students at the following colleges who submitted test scores were admitted at much higher rates than students who did not:

  • Boston College: 2.7x
  • Georgia Tech: 2.3x
  • Emory: 2.7x
  • University of Virginia: 1.9x
  • Amherst College: 2x
  • Colgate College: 2.2x
  • University of Pennsylvania: 1.8x


College Admissions Have Become More Competitive



For the classes of 2021 and 2022, the institution of test-optional policies at popular colleges led to in an increase in total applications, resulting in greater competition for the same number of freshman seats. More applicants = lower admission rates.


  • Admissions at the most selective colleges (e.g., Harvard, MIT) have become even more competitive, while admissions at previously only moderately selective colleges have declined by even greater margins (e.g., Boston University, NYU, Tulane).

  • According to the Common App, total applications in 2020-2021 increased by 22% (while the number of applicants increased by <2%), meaning each student applied to more colleges. 


Grade Inflation Is on the Rise


  • Grade inflation has been on the rise for several decades, but in recent years has been further exacerbated by the pandemic (e.g., due to online learning). On average, students are graduating with higher cumulative GPAs.
    • The average cumulative GPA of all high school graduates has increased from 3.17 in 2010 to 3.36 in 2021.

  • A high SAT/ACT score can help offset a lower GPA. Test scores can be an important indicator of college readiness, if grades are middling.
    • Example: A student with a 3.5 GPA and strong SAT/ACT scores (e.g., 1300 SAT/30 ACT) could be viewed more favorably than a student with a 3.8 GPA and no submitted test scores.

  • The further you go in high school the more difficult it is to improve your GPA. By spring of junior year, it is typically more feasible to improve your SAT/ACT scores than your GPA in the span of a few months.





High test scores (1400 SAT/31 ACT or above) may be considered for a handful of students who may not otherwise be admitted. 


-University of Washington admissions website


How Should I Approach Testing Given My Goals?


230307 Approaching Testing

Approaching SAT/ACT Testing: You Have Four Decisions to Make


When approaching SAT/ACT testing, you need to answer four questions:

  1. Should I take a practice SAT and ACT?
  2. Should I take the official SAT or ACT?
  3. Should I prepare for the official SAT or ACT?
  4. Should I submit my scores to any given college?

1. Should I Take a Practice SAT and ACT?




All students should take a practice SAT and ACT.

Taking a free practice SAT and ACT will:


  • Allow you to determine whether the SAT or ACT better suits your strengths
  • Establish your baseline score and get important diagnostic information
  • Build stamina and get familiar with timed testing conditions
  • Avoid the expense, delay, and risk of experimenting with official tests 


When you should take your first practice SAT and ACT depends on your grade level and what level of math you have completed.  See where you land in this table:


190505 When to Take SAT ACT Table v2


2. Should I Take the Official SAT or ACT?




Most students should take the official SAT or ACT.


For the vast majority of college-bound 10th & 11th graders, taking and performing your best on the SAT/ACT will maximize your college admissions and scholarship opportunities.




You should skip the official SAT/ACT only if you’re 100% certain that you will be applying exclusively to test-blind schools, and you’re not applying for any scholarships that require SAT/ACT scores (e.g., Alaska Performance Scholarship, certain Western Undergraduate Exchange scholarships).


3. Should I Prepare for the Official SAT or ACT?




You should prepare for the SAT/ACT if your baseline scores are below the average for admitted students at your colleges of interest (or below the cut-off for your scholarships of interest).


  • Example: Your baseline SAT score is 1200.  If you are seeking admission to University of Washington, improving your SAT to within the middle 50% range (1220-1470; median 1350) would improve your chances of admission.




You don't need to pursue SAT/ACT prep if your baseline scores already exceed the averages test scores of admitted students to all of your colleges of interest.


4. Should I Submit My Scores to Any Given School?


  It Depends  


Due to the proliferation of test-optional policies, students have much more power to decide what they want to do with their test scores. Some students may submit their scores to all colleges, while others may submit scores only to select colleges.  At some colleges, submitting scores below the median score for admitted students may disadvantage applicants.  Other colleges explicitly state that submitting scoreseven those below the college's median for admitted studentsis to the student's advantage.




Applicants who have successfully completed one or more ACT or SAT exams should consider including scores, even if those scores are below the middle 50% ranges listed below. Yale’s internal research has consistently shown that ACT and SAT scores are a significant predictor of a student’s undergraduate academic performance.


-Yale admissions website


The College Board publishes admissions data for most colleges, including GPA ranges, test score ranges, and acceptance rates. Individual college websites may provide more specific admissions data on their Freshman Profile pages.  We will also provide you median SAT/ACT scores—and guidance on whether to submit scoresfor your colleges of interest during your North to My Future college admissions strategy session.


230307 Average SAT ACT Table


Here are some actual scenarios from our college admissions consulting students to guide your thinking on whether to submit scores:


  • Student 1: 4.32 Weighted GPA, 1560 SAT; STEM applicant to highly selective colleges; submitted test scores to all colleges (including Harvey Mudd and Bowdoin College), except for test-blind colleges (UC Berkeley & CalTech)

  • Student 2: 4.18 Weighted GPA, 1430 SAT superscore; Psychology applicant to moderate-highly selective colleges; submitted test scores to all colleges (including UW, Vassar, and Boston University), except for Dartmouth

  • Student 3: 3.74 GPA, 1420 SAT superscore; Computer Science applicant to out-of-state colleges with strengths in STEM; submitted scores to all colleges (including UT Austin, Texas A&M, George Mason, CU Boulder)

  • Student 4: 3.47 Weighted GPA, 1090 SAT; Undeclared applicant to colleges with D1 men’s swimming; submitted scores to less competitive colleges (Colorado Mesa), did not submit to more academically competitive colleges (Colorado College, Chapman University) and test-blind colleges (UC Santa Cruz)

  • Student 5: 3.28 Unweighted GPA; 1240 SAT; Undecided applicant to WUE colleges and institutions offering flight training; submitted scores to all colleges (including Embry Riddle, Purdue, and Colorado State University)





Need Personalized Guidance on Your SAT/ACT Strategy? Meet with an Expert.


Meet with our college counselor with North to My Future, your free, individualized college admissions strategy session.  During this meeting, we'll provide you with individualized guidance on your SAT/ACT testing strategy—including how test-optional policies may impact your plansbased on your college and scholarship goals.  


If you have already completed North to My Future, please schedule a call with us, and we'll help you design your SAT/ACT testing strategy.


Sign Up for My FREE College Planning Meeting


Additional Resources

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Premium SAT/ACT Prep Programs

Premium College Admissions Consulting Plans






Topics: College Admissions, ACT, SAT, 11th Grade - Juniors, 10th Grade - Sophomores, 12th Grade - Seniors, College Admissions: Test Well, Anchorage