Many more colleges and universities now no longer require students to submit a standardized test score for admission. Submitting an ACT or SAT score is now often optional. But the test is optional primarily for those excited to pay full price. For those seeking scholarships, jump that score and improve your chances to win them. 

The Growth of Test-Optional Colleges

Bowdoin College became the first test-optional school in 1969. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) list now includes over 1,800 colleges and universities that no longer require a test score for admission, though most still do. Some colleges are “test-flexible” and require some standardized test results (AP, IB…). Other colleges superscore, allowing applicants to combine their best subject area scores from multiple tests. 

Why Universities Use Standardized Tests for Admission

Here’s the big reason why standardized tests matter: high school GPAs are not consistent across states or even districts. An A at one high school might be a B or C at another. Some high schools use 4-point scales. Some use 5-point scales. Honors and AP courses are weighted at some schools, but not at others. Application essays are subjective and can be plagiarized or written by another student, a parent, or a paid professional. Those essays and recommendation letters often correlate with a student’s family’s wealth much more so than a test score. That ACT or SAT score simply allows additional understanding of the applicant. Grade inflation has entered many high schools, primarily due to parental pressure. In an exclusively test-optional world, pressure on high school teachers to inflate grades would become even more intense.

Why Schools Become Test-Optional

This shift comes for a variety of reasons. One is a desire to boost the number of applications received. Other reasons might include:

  • a desire to improve the number of minorities who apply and enroll
  • the concern about relying too much on a single test in the admissions process
  • the feeling that test prep is primarily availably to wealthy students (one driving reason for OnToCollege serving so many high schools directly is to provide affordable, engaging, effective prep for all students)
  • a desire to boost their reported freshman class ACT or SAT score, improving the college’s rankings

A 2014 study by professors at the University of Georgia, The Test-Optional Movement at America’s Selective Liberal Arts Colleges: A Boon for Equity, or Something Else?, found the opposite impact. As application numbers grew, colleges became more selective, and higher scores still made a difference. Average test scores for incoming freshmen rose substantially because lower-scoring students did not submit one. But diversity at the 32 test-optional institutions reviewed did not improve. For students who struggle with standardized tests, test-optional admissions can be a benefit. But remember that where test scores are absent, other more subjective attributes become more prominent: GPA, academic rigor, extracurricular activities, leadership, writing ability, interviewing skills, recommendation letters, essays, etc.

Some schools, such as MIT, were temporarily test-optional, but now require test scores again. MIT’s internal research found that requiring test scores helped improve the diversity of their enrolled students and also improved the likelihood that those enrolled students would pass the required freshmen courses at MIT. Purdue University has also announced it will require test scores for fall 2024 admission. No one benefits when students drop out of college because they’re not college-ready. Here is a U.S. News list of top colleges that still require test scores.

Submitting Test Scores to Test-Optional Colleges

With all this in mind, who should consider submitting test scores for applications, even where scores are optional?

  • Scholarship seekers
  • Division I athletes (required)
  • Early admission professional program students (usually required)
  • International students (usually required)
  • Homeschool students (usually required)
  • Transfer applicants who have not completed freshman year (often required)
  • Students with above average test scores
  • Students with lower GPAs

In a time when the average cost of college is almost $35,000 per year, and the average student leaves college with $28,000 in debt, solid test scores are still one of the best ways to become a two- or four- year college graduate with minimal debt. Given the thousands of dollars in scholarships available, jumping your ACT or SAT score is still the best paying part-time job a high school student can have! So even if you’re not required to submit a standardized test score for college admission, maybe you should.

“Test optional” means optional primarily for those excited to pay full price because colleges that are test-optional still typically require test scores for scholarships. Plus, many colleges look at test scores for class placement or require minimum scores for specific programs or majors. Finally, if two similar candidates apply to a selective college, and one has a college-ready test score and the other supplies no score, who do you think has the advantage?

Interested in more reasons Why the ACT & SAT Matter at Test-Optional Colleges?