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student taking a standardized test, using a pencil to fill in bubbles on a test
Photographer: Ben Mullins | Source: Unsplash

In this informational essay, former admissions officer Monica explains the test-optional policy and how students can decide whether to take standardized tests. For more guidance on personal essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

Many colleges went test-optional for the first time in 2020-2021, changing the standardized testing landscape for the foreseeable future.

Standardized tests have always been difficult to navigate, but these recent changes have brought about even more questions and confusion. You might be wondering what these changes really mean as well as whether you should take the SAT/ACT or submit your scores to various colleges. In this article, I will discuss this new test-optional landscape and how to navigate it.

Understanding the Terms: Test-Optional, Test-Flexible, and Test-Blind

First, it is important to understand the differences between testing policies of various institutions. These policies may impact your testing plan as you refine your school list and create your application strategy.

Colleges that are test-optional do not require students to submit standardized test scores; however, if students do choose to submit scores, they will consider them.

Alternatively, test-blind universities will not consider a students’ scores when making admissions decisions—whether or not they decide to submit them. The University of California system recently announced that it decided to go test-blind for all students applying for entry until fall 2025. As a result, the UC system became the largest higher education institution to completely move away from standardized tests.

Finally, test-flexible colleges require students to submit some standardized test score, but they offer students a variety of options. Some schools, like NYU, allow students to choose among SAT/ACT, International Baccalaureate, and Advanced Placement scores. Each college will have their own list of accepted standardized test scores, so it is important to check their requirements carefully.

How Do I Find Out What A College’s Standardized Test Policies Are?

Fair Test (the National Center for Fair and Open Testing) maintains a list of institutions that are test-blind or test-optional. As of June 2021, more than 1,500 universities do not require SAT or ACT scores for fall 2022 applicants. Since policies are constantly changing, you will want to make sure to check the list frequently. Additionally, make sure to double check standardized testing policies on each college’s undergraduate admissions webpage.

Some schools also “superscore” the SAT and ACT. Superscoring means that the university uses the top score from each section of the test over multiple sittings to calculate your final score. Check each school’s website to see if they use this practice.

Devising a Testing Strategy

Juniors can follow the helpful tips from this CollegeAdvisor.com article for advice on which test to take and when as well as how to improve your score.

If you are a senior who hasn’t taken the SAT/ACT, you will have to assess how much time you have to prepare. Consider whether the schools on your list require standardized test scores. It is important to balance studying with your senior year responsibilities. Preparing for standardized tests should not negatively impact your grades, participation in extracurricular activities, or college essays, which are all important components of your application.

Many colleges have gone test-optional or test-blind, but some continue using standardized test scores to determine eligibility for merit scholarships. If finances are an important factor for your family, a strong test score could help you secure merit scholarships.

Should I Submit My Standardized Test Scores?

When deciding to submit scores, look at your college list and the average SAT/ACT scores at each school. How do your scores compare? If your scores are below the average, it might not be helpful to submit them. If, however, your scores are at or above average, they could strengthen your application.

Keep in mind that in the absence of standardized test scores, Admissions Officers will place more emphasis on other factors. This might include your GPA, recommendation letters, extracurricular activities, and essays.

Students often fear that they will be penalized for not submitting standardized test scores, even by test-blind or test-optional institutions. However, this is a misconception — students who choose not to submit scores are not at any disadvantage.

As you think about your application strategy, you should view the recent changes in standardized test policies as a positive development. After all, they provide you with more options and flexibility! Ultimately, you want to make sure that your application is the best reflection of you and your own unique experiences. For some students, that might include standardized test scores and for others, it might not.

Try your best to obtain the highest score you can, but ultimately, don’t get too hung up on your score. As an external applications reader at UC Berkeley in 2020-21, I did not have access to student scores because the institution decided to go test-blind. In the absence of test scores, I was able to view each student holistically and within their own context. While the future of standardized tests may remain uncertain, embrace the flexibility and create a testing plan that makes sense for you and your own personal circumstances.

This article was written by Monica Ibrahim, former admissions officer at CollegeAdvisor.com. If you want to get one-on-one advising for your college applications, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.