Taking the SAT or ACT is often a source of stress for students, as some spend weeks or months prepping to try to earn a score high enough to land at their ideal college. But now, many schools are placing less emphasis on these standardized test scores in the admissions process and are instead focusing on other factors, like GPA and essays.
Around 1,750 four-year colleges have announced plans to go test-optional or test-blind for fall 2023, according to a tentative count by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit advocacy group commonly known as FairTest. This trend, while not new, was accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, when many students were unable to access testing sites.
Colleges also recognize that there are “correlations between income and test scores,” says Dana Rolander, a certified educational planner and founder of Ohio-based Midwest College Consulting.
“Students from more underrepresented groups with less privilege have had less access to test prep, so it hasn’t been considered an equal playing field for kids from all backgrounds,” she adds.
Test-Optional v. Test-Blind
“It certainly benefits students for whom standardized tests are not their strong suit,” says Anna Ivey, founder of Ivey Consulting, a college and graduate school consulting firm.
“We all know people who are very gifted academically and they are just not good standardized test-takers,” Ivey says. “That is a very real phenomenon. So it’s a good thing that people now have the choice as far as whether they want to make that part of their profile or not.”
Far less common are test-blind or test-free policies, which are being used by the University of California system and schools like Loyola University New Orleans in Louisiana and Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. These policies mean that even if a student submits SAT or ACT scores, the school will not consider them during the application process.
These policies often come with caveats. For instance, a college may claim to be test-optional, but still require scores for certain programming or out-of-state applicants. Some test-optional schools even consider test scores when determining merit scholarship recipients.
“Students unfortunately have to do a little bit of digging around to make sure that they see all the fine print because each school has its own policies,” Ivey says.
How Colleges Review Applications
“Test scores tend to validate other parts of the application,” Rolander says. “But a high school transcript is always going to matter more than a test score.”
Transcripts are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, since some high schools offer varying types of advanced classes. This means that if your high school did not have Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses, it won’t be held against you.
Schools – especially those with holistic admissions – also pay attention to other parts of the application, including extracurricular activities, class rigor, recommendation letters and answers to essay prompts.
“It was never the case that the outcome rested on an SAT score. That was never how the world worked in admissions,” Rolander says.
Dan Kwon, senior vice president of admissions consulting at FLEX College Prep, notes that essays are becoming far more important in the college admissions process.
An essay helps give “insight about who you are, the values that you hold and how you might fit into their environment,” he says. “It sheds light into your maturity, your reflectiveness and, importantly, your goals and aspirations. Admissions officers genuinely try to look for the students who are going to best achieve those and fit into that particular environment. Because for better or worse, they can’t accept everybody.”
Should I Still Submit My Scores?
College admissions experts encourage almost every student to take the SAT or ACT at least once, barring significant access barriers or text anxiety. Fee waivers for both tests are available for eligible students, and those who qualify may also receive waived application fees at certain colleges.
Based on how well you perform, you can decide whether or not to submit your scores. Both the SAT and ACT have an option to cancel scores if the test didn’t go well, for instance if the student filled out the answer sheet incorrectly or didn’t finish the exam.
If a student takes the SAT or ACT more than once, some colleges require all of the results on the respective test to be submitted. Others automatically superscore, meaning that a student’s highest scores from each section on all test attempts are combined to create a new composite score.
Experts recommend looking up the “middle 50” – the range of scores between the 25th percentile and 75th percentile for the last admitted class – on each college’s website to see if your score falls within or above that range.
“If you’re in the upper part of that band or above, those scores help you,” Ivey says. “But if you are in the bottom half of that band or below, those scores don’t help you. So unless there’s some other extraneous reason why you should be submitting those scores, I would say don’t submit them. My general rule for people is submit your scores only if they are required or if they help you.”
In the fall 2021 college application cycle, about 20% of applicants had no recorded SAT or ACT score, according to data from the Admissions Research Consortium of the College Board, the not-for-profit organization that administers the SAT. Half submitted an SAT or ACT score and 30% had a score but chose not to submit it.
“Keep in mind that test-optional policies, I think, are contributing to the rise (in) applications, particularly at selective colleges,” Rolander says. “Because students who might not otherwise have applied because of lower test scores now sometimes feel they have a better chance at admission, especially if their grades and the rest of their application is strong.”