Why do the ACT & SAT matter at test-optional colleges?

Even as many colleges temporarily extend their test-optional admissions policies another year, the ACT and SAT still can greatly affect merit-based scholarships and college admissions. 

  •  Loyola University ChicagoClemson University, and the University of Oklahoma are among schools that made scores optional but continue to require test results for their most prestigious merit scholarships.
  • After the pandemic had arrived, in a 2020 NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) survey of admissions officials at 221 colleges, more than 82% answered that they gave standardized test scores “considerable or moderate importance” in admissions decisions. 
  • Many schools award automatic scholarships based on test scores including MIT, Ohio State, Texas Tech, the University of Mississippi, and the University of Missouri.

Taking the test is optional for those excited to pay full price

Test-optional often just means no test score required to get in. But many test-optional schools financially reward students for ‘college-ready’ ACT/SAT scores. The grid below illustrates how the tuition cost decreases at three test-optional colleges thanks to a higher score. Students headed into the trades or starting at community colleges should also prepare for an ACT/SAT. Many two-year colleges also give scholarships thanks to a higher ACT score.

Juniors and seniors, these three colleges and so many others give scholarships based on scores. So work hard to jump that score now or possibly pay more later. Increasing that score remains the best-paying job a high school student can have.

And which students especially should prepare hard for the ACT/SAT?

All students from families with less than $160,000 in annual income, especially free-and-reduced lunch students (who get four ACT tests and two SAT tests for free), should prepare for the ACT. Significant need-based eligibility does not guarantee significant need-based aid. If two applicants with equal need and grades apply for aid, but one does NOT submit a score and one submits a ‘college-ready’ ACT score, which might receive more aid? A higher score bolsters that transcript and can make college affordable for students who need financial help the most.

Not only does a higher ACT or SAT score trigger merit-based and need-based aid, that higher score may give an applicant a competitive edge in selective college admissions versus students who submit no scores, one reason about 85% of applicants to test-optional University of Chicago pre-Covid chose to submit their test scores.

That test score can also thankfully mean NO remedial classes

The issue of class placement also matters. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln requires its engineering majors to have at least a 24 on their ACT. And an ACT score of 22 or higher should waive two- and four-year college applicants out of most freshmen year remedial classes, the high school do-over classes that offer no college credit and reduce the likelihood of ever graduating.

The ‘optional’ in ‘test-optional’ is misleading

Extracurricular activities are optional, but students should join them. Filling out the FAFSA is optional, but families should fill out their FAFSA each year. Many colleges are currently test-optional, but better test scores can mean merit scholarships, a freshmen year with no remedial classes, and a competitive advantage for need-based aid and selective-college admissions.

Seniors, take two more ACTs (September, October, and December) or two more SATs (August, October, November, and December) to maximize scholarships and admissions options. Juniors, get ready to hammer the grammar this spring. 

Test Day is Pay Day. A higher score triggers opportunity and money. You have nothing to lose by trying. If your final ACT or SAT score doesn’t help, apply with just your transcript. You may still have a fighting chance for admissions and money. But if that score is high enough to help, use it. Leverage it. A higher score bolsters your GPA and your entire application. 

Now just go get that higher score.