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Last updated April 28, 2023

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What Does Test Optional Actually Mean?

Key Takeaway

With so many schools going test-optional, deciding whether to submit scores can seem like a test in itself. To make an informed decision, you'll need to think about factors like the school's middle 50% range and your intended major.

Over half of bachelor's degree-granting colleges are now permanently test-optional. These changes were, of course, sparked by growing uncertainty about the usefulness of standardized test scores and logistical limitations of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Whether other institutions—especially the highly-selective ones—will return to requiring test scores remains to be seen. But if the last few years are any predictor, the conversation about test-optional admissions is here to stay.

Part of this conversation about test-optional admissions is whether they are, in fact, optional. Institutions may not technically require test scores to submit an application, but are those who do submit scores more likely to be admitted? Will omitting a score endanger your application? Will including a score boost your chances?

If you’re applying to college in these murky test-optional waters, you’re probably weighing your options.

We have some opinions for you—and a few guiding rules about when to (and when not to) submit your scores.

How do admissions officers evaluate my test scores?

Let’s start with some terminology.

Admissions offices can require standardized test scores. That’s pretty straightforward. But if they don’t require them, then they can either be test-optional or test-blind. While test-optional institutions will consider your test scores if you submit them, test-blind institutions don’t want to see your scores at all.

The validity of standardized testing is a topic for a whole other post. But the reality is that test scores give admissions officers another key data point.

In general, most admissions offices evaluate applicants across a few categories:

  • GPA
  • Course rigor
  • Essays
  • Extracurricular achievement
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Standardized test scores

These categories all make up what we call “holistic admissions.” Admissions officers aren’t just looking at your GPA or essays. They’re looking at everything together—your essays, academics, stats, recommendations, and extracurriculars—and they’re looking at them within the context of your school, family, and personal background. These components all make up what we like to call your application narrative.

When you submit your test scores, you give admissions officers more information to work with. Specifically, admissions officers assess how your scores hold up to their middle 50% range, which is the test score range that the middle 50% of applicants fall within.

Picture this (albeit reductive) example: you’re an admissions officer reviewing two nearly identical applications. Both applicants, Sally and Ann, have 4.0 unweighted GPAs, did the IB Diploma, and won national debate competitions. At this point, it’s difficult to distinguish between them.

Now, let’s say that Sally submitted test scores and Ann didn’t. Sally’s ACT composite score was a 35. We now have one more piece of data with which to evaluate Sally’s application.

If Sally is applying to Princeton, whose middle 50% ACT composite range is 33-35, then Sally is at the upper end of the middle 50%.

Because of the strong score, that piece of data actually helps Sally stand out from Ann.

Of course, reviewing applications is far more nuanced. But the point remains the same. In highly-selective admissions, where every piece of data counts, having a strong standardized test score can work in your favor.

What happens when I don’t submit my test scores?

When schools are test-optional, they won’t penalize you for deciding not to submit your test scores.

But if you submit your application without test scores, then it’s a simple calculation of compensation. Since you’ve removed one piece of data from the equation, the other data points on the list—GPA, rigor, essays, extracurriculars, and recommendations—receive more weight.

There are some circumstances where omitting test scores is a relatively obvious choice.

Maybe you’re a great student but a nervous test-taker. If your test scores would weigh down an otherwise outstanding application, then this kind of holistic review process can be your saving grace. More weight to an already excellent application isn’t a bad thing.

Even if your application isn’t perfect, scores below an institution’s middle 50% range can raise red flags that don’t need to be raised. In those cases, it’s probably best to apply test-optional.

Are test scores actually optional?

Here’s the bottom line.

Some schools are truly test-optional. When they say “test-optional,” they mean it. Those schools typically have more holistic review processes and higher acceptance rates. You should be able to sus out where a school lands on the test-optional scale by speaking with an admissions counselor or attending an information session.

But for other schools—especially more highly-selective institutions—the answer isn’t quite as clear. You may not technically have to submit test scores to submit an application. But when we step back and look at admission result data, the numbers don’t always indicate that test scores are optional if you want to give yourself the best chance of being admitted.

When to Submit Your Test Scores

As with all applicant strategy, the decision to submit test scores requires careful consideration of the scores you received, the schools you’re applying to, and your own personal background.

In general, we recommend submitting your test scores if you are at or above the middle 50% for the school you’re applying to.

But there are a few caveats.

Caveat #1: Personal Background

In holistic review processes, admissions officers view applicants in context. That means that an admissions officer will look at your application differently if you come from a private school in New Jersey versus a public school in rural Montana.

Because colleges and universities want to enroll diverse classes, institutions actively look for students from underrepresented backgrounds. If you’re from a background that is underrepresented in higher education, then you probably have more wiggle room with your SAT scores.

On the flip side of that, if you’re from a background that has historically been privileged in higher education, then you might only want to submit scores if they are at the higher end of the middle 50%.

Caveat #2: Major Considerations

When applying to very competitive majors (think computer science, business, engineering), you want as many tools in your toolkit as possible. Your SAT or ACT scores can be one of them.

If you’re applying to one of these more competitive majors, your standardized test scores are probably less optional—as long as your scores hold up to the averages.

If your score is on the lower end of the middle 50% for a competitive major, then you might consider omitting it. But being able to submit a score that is at the high end or above the middle 50% can help tip the admissions scales in your favor.

A Final Word

Test scores aren’t likely to make or break your application. But being strategic about when and where you submit them is an important part of your applicant strategy.

You may submit your scores to one program but not another. You might submit them every time or not at all. Just be sure that you’re making as informed a choice as you can.

To help, here’s a quick checklist.

Test-Optional Checklist

  • If your test scores are on the higher end of the middle 50% for a school, then you probably should submit them.
  • If your scores are below a school’s middle 50%, then it may be best to omit them.
  • If you’re applying to a more competitive major, you should try to aim for a good test score and submit it.
  • If the background you come from is underrepresented in higher education and your scores are around the middle 50%, then you should probably submit them.
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