The Welcoming World of Test Optional Colleges
Do you know any students with outstanding grades who aren’t satisfied with their scores on the SAT or ACT? Many students fit this description, and their scores often cause anxiety about prospects for college admission. Their anxiety is often relieved when they learn how many colleges don’t require all their applicants to submit standardized test scores for admission. These are known as “test optional” schools, and they provide wonderful opportunities. We’ll provide guidance for exploring the test optional landscape, and reference “test flexible” schools, which require standardized tests but allow applicants to submit tests other than the SAT/ACT.
Visit www.fairtest.org. If you're considering test optional schools, review the information and compilations at fairtest.org. These include an alphabetical list of all test optional (and test flexible) schools, a compilation listing schools by their U.S. News categories and rankings (2016), and a chronology of schools that have gone test optional since 2005.
Test Optional Schools Come in Many Shapes and Sizes. The lists on fairtest.org include a diverse group of schools, from private liberal arts colleges to large public universities. Though many are in the Northeast, they are spread throughout the country, and they cover a wide range of selectivity. Many students, therefore, can find test optional schools that represent good fits.
Nevertheless, students aspiring to highly selective schools have significantly more options among liberal arts colleges, including schools as selective and prestigious as Bowdoin College (ME) and Wesleyan University (CT). You’ll also find top women’s colleges like Smith (MA) and Bryn Mawr (PA), and one of the most selective Catholic schools, College of the Holy Cross (MA). Indeed, 17 of the U.S News 50 highest-ranked national liberal arts colleges (2016) are test optional, as are 44 of the top 100. (A few others are test flexible, so almost half of the top 100 don’t require the SAT/ACT!)
It’s a very different story with national universities. Only TWO of the U.S. News top 50 are test optional, Wake Forest (NC) and Brandeis (MA), and only SIX of the top 100 are test optional for all applicants. (A few others are test flexible, and some are test optional for select categories of applicants, like Delaware residents at the University of Delaware.) Similarly, few engineering schools and programs are test optional, but Worcester Polytechnic Institute (MA) is a notable exception, and Trinity College (CT) and Smith (MA) are liberal arts colleges that offer engineering and don't exclude those applicants from their test optional policies.
Make sure you’re eligible to apply test optional. Some schools require a certain GPA or class rank to apply test optional, and many exclude categories of applicants from their test optional policies. Typical exclusions are home-schooled applicants, students who received written evaluations instead of grades in high school, international applicants, and recruited athletes. Some programs might require scores, like accelerated B.A./M.D. programs.
Watch for additional requirements. Some test optional schools impose additional requirements if you decide not to submit SAT/ACT scores. For example, some require test optional applicants to submit one or more analytical papers from 11th or 12th grade, including grades and teacher comments. Philadelphia’s Temple University requires applicants using the “Temple Option” to answer questions online. Other colleges require an interview.
You might not be eligible for merit aid. Many test optional colleges make merit aid fully available for students who choose not to submit test scores, but some do not. Others make some merit aid available to test optional applicants, but reserve the most generous scholarships for students who submit test scores. Therefore, if obtaining merit aid is a priority, make sure it’s available for test optional applicants.
When should you withhold your SAT or ACT scores? This depends on your other qualifications and the school in question, and requires individualized analysis. Generally, if your scores are below a college's averages, you should consider applying test optional, and most students below a college's published 25%-75% range should withhold their scores. If you're near or above the school's 75th percentile, you should submit your scores.
Can you submit scores from other tests? If you don't submit the SAT or ACT, some test optional colleges will consider scores from SAT Subject Tests or AP exams for admission, and you should submit scores that would enhance your application. (See our previous post about the Subject Tests.) Without submitting the SAT or ACT, however, you'll still be considered test optional, and will have to satisfy any resulting requirements.
What about test flexible schools? These require standardized test scores, but applicants can satisfy this requirement with scores from tests other than the SAT/ACT. Approaches vary, so you need to examine each school’s policy. Some allow applicants to submit SAT Subject Tests in lieu of the SAT/ACT, while others will accept AP or IB exams. These can be advantageous for students with uncompetitive SAT/ACT scores, but strong scores on other tests that satisfy a school's policy.