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What the Heck is Test Optional Anyway?

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

Photo by Yustinus Tjiuwanda on Unsplash

In 1969, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine became the first college to eliminate the requirement that applicants must submit a standardized test score (ACT/SAT) for consideration of admission. However, it wouldn’t be until this year, and a devastating global pandemic, for the trend to go more mainstream among U.S. colleges and universities.

We’ve been getting a ton of questions about what this means if you have a high school student approaching the college search. There is definitely some bad misinformation out there on social media, so to help, here are our top FAQ’s:

What is “test optional” as opposed to “test blind?”

Test optional means that, as an applicant, you can choose whether you wish to submit your ACT or SAT scores. If you submit them, the college will consider them. If you are using the Common Application, it (the Common App) will ask you if you wish to self-report your test score. IMPORTANT: If you say yes to that question, the college will almost certainly use them, even if you have not sent official score reports from the ACT and/or College Board.

Test blind means that the college will not consider ACT or SAT even if you did submit them.

What are some situations where a student will still need a standardized test score?

Just because a college is test optional for admission, they may still require a standardized test score for merit scholarships, honors college admissions, and/or academic course placement.

In addition, while the NCAA and NAIA have granted one-year eligibility waivers for students entering college for the entering academic year 2020, they have not yet done so for potential student athletes entering for the fall of 2021 (as of the writing of this post). That means that at this time, if you are considering attending college as NCAA or NAIA-level athlete, you would still need to get a standardized test score.

Which colleges are test optional?

There seems to be an assumption on social media in this COVID-19 infused admissions cycle that “most or all colleges are test optional this year.” This is NOT the case. Let me say that again - not all, or even most, colleges are test optional. In fact, only approximately half of U.S. four-year colleges and universities have announced they will be test optional. The best listing on the web where you can look up information about which schools have announced they will be test optional for the 2020-21 admissions cycle is’s list of accredited, four-year colleges with ACT/SAT optional policies.

What if the college I want to go to is not test optional for this fall and I cannot get a test?

In some cases, colleges (especially public colleges) do not have the authority to waive their testing requirements as many state legislatures direct admissions criteria. As for why colleges might still require a test score for merit scholarships, it might be due to scholarship awarding criteria established by conditions of the financial donors or awarding agency.

So, yes, it is true that most colleges are going to work with you if you are simply unable to get an ACT or SAT, but there are limits as to what some colleges can do. The best thing to do if your top choice college is still requiring testing is to contact them and see if they can update you on their policies.

I haven’t yet been able to schedule for an ACT/SAT, should I still attempt to do so?

There have been a litany of challenges with scheduling an ACT/SAT with locations being maxed out and technical issues. We would recommend you continue to try and schedule a test sitting, provided you feel it is safe to do so. Having a strong test score would be a benefit to a student applying to college this year, as it is in any year.

However, if you are like many of our clients who live in states where tests are unable to be administered, it is probably time to start considering the very real possibility that your student will be applying to college without an ACT or SAT. If that happens, IT’S OKAY. Trust me when I say this. Here’s why . . . (see below).

So how will colleges consider my application without a test score?

They will use a holistic review process that colleges have been using for decades, even if the college only recently opted to go test optional. A holistic admissions review looks at your grades, your activities (even the ones that have been impacted by COVID-19 cancellations), your essays, and possibly even some graded papers or projects you would have already completed in school. In essence, they will ask you to tell your story in your application and make their decision based on that. The best news of all is that ALL of these things are in your control.

Telling your story in your application is not complicated, but that’s not to say that it’s easy. In fact, it takes a good deal of courage and a willingness to lean in. That’s why most students don’t do it. They write energy-devoid essays and applications with the same vigor as one would write a grocery shopping list.

That’s why our clients have a leg up in this process, because we work one-on-one with them to believe in their story, to breathe life to it, and put together applications that help colleges see them clearly as more than test scores or numbers on a page. In a year that has felt so out of control in so many respects, at least THIS is still in your control.

Not working with us yet? Feeling stressed by the college search process? Let's chat.

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