For decades, most selective US universities have required the SAT or ACT: three-hour tests of a student’s literacy, writing, and mathematical reasoning skills. Or at least they did before the pandemic. At least 75% of US colleges have announced that they are “test optional” for students applying in 2020-21 and 2021-22, according to Fairtest.org. (The exceptions include state universities in a few states, such as Florida and Georgia, that have resisted lockdown and other pandemic-related changes.) As a result, the number of students not submitting test scores has hugely increased, from 23% of 2019-20 applicants through the Common Application, a portal used by most of the leading US colleges, to 57% in 2020-21.
The rise of test-optional admissions, and what it means
Test-optional, or test-flexible, means that students can choose to report a score if, as Stanford puts it, “you feel that your scores are a positive reflection of your academic preparedness.” But most test-optional colleges claim that (again in Stanford’s formulation) students “will not be at a disadvantage if you choose not to report your scores.”
Don’t take this claim at face-value. Earlier this year I wrote a piece arguing that even at test optional colleges, “a good SAT/ACT score is a real advantage, especially for international students.” This is what test-optional means: you can decide whether to submit a score, and if you do, the college will factor it into their assessment of you.
And we have reason to think most colleges still place meaningful weight on SAT/ACT scores. More than 70% of the colleges that are currently test-optional switched to the new policy in the wake of the pandemic. These institutions haven’t intentionally de-emphasized standardized tests; they felt they were forced to temporarily suspend the requirement because it would have been unfair to some students, given uneven access to the exams and the burdens of the pandemic.
This emergency change won’t have altered many college admissions officers’ belief that SAT/ACT scores are a valuable assessment tool. At elite public universities these scores along with high school courses/grades have often formed the entire basis for admissions decisions, while at private universities they have been one important factor among others such as extracurricular activities and essays. It is unrealistic to think that admissions people will no longer be influenced by a factor that has been so important to their assessments for so long. And the vast majority of colleges have not yet definitively said whether they’ll be test optional in 2022-23, further evidence that much of the college admissions community is unsure of whether they really want to jump off the standardized test bandwagon they’ve been riding in for so many decades.
What to do if you’re applying without a strong SAT/ACT score
So if you can achieve a terrific SAT/ACT score, it helps you in the eyes of admissions officers. But what if you don’t have that top score? You may not have been able to take the test at all. Or perhaps you were only able to sit for the exam once, in the midst of your 12th grade year, and didn’t get the score you expected from your practice tests. Or maybe you did take the exam multiple times, but were not able to reach the heights you hoped for. Maybe you scored in the 1100s or 1200s but are aiming at selective colleges whose middle 50% of students score in the 1300s or 1400s. Or maybe you scored in the 1300s but are aiming at elite colleges whose middle 50% of SAT scores are in the high 1400s or 1500s.
If this describes you, and you won’t have the chance to take an exam again before you apply, what’s your best approach? First, know that huge numbers of students are in the same boat. Many of the students I work with were unable to take the SAT/ACT until during their 12th grade (final secondary school) year. And most of them haven’t done as well on their first official exam as they have been doing on practice exams, perhaps because the practice exams aren’t quite under proper exam conditions, or perhaps due to nerves. But students with strong records who write good admissions essays get into good colleges, regardless of their SAT/ACT scores: I’ve seen it time and again. So relax and focus on putting your best foot forward.
Next, weigh your options. You have two choice points.
Choice 1: Whether to report your score
You have the option to self-report your score (if you have one) to the colleges you’re applying to. You don’t have to choose between reporting it to all of them, or none of them; you can decide on a case-by-case basis. I advise my students, all of whom are international, to submit their SAT/ACT score to a college if their score is above the 25th percentile for enrolled students. (Colleges’ SAT/ACT 25th-75th percentile range is a widely available statistic.) American students might be advised not to submit a score unless it’s in the top half (better than the 50th percentile), but international students should err on the side of submitting a score, because US colleges are more skittish about whether international students are prepared to succeed in the US environment, and the SAT/ACT is a tried-and-true metric that has been show to correlate with success in college.
Consider: Smith College went test-optional years ago, but retained the testing requirement only for international students, because they don’t feel confident making admissions decisions on students coming from less-familiar educational systems and schools without it. We can guess that many other colleges feel similarly, whether they have been willing to carve out an official exception for international students or not.
A score between the 25th and 50th percentile of enrolled students won’t “wow” the admissions committee – it won’t be the reason you get in – but it negates a potential reason for international students to be rejected: that you may look like an uncertain bet because you’re coming from a less familiar educational system or because English isn’t your first language. A competitive score provides the college reassurance that you have the preparation to handle its academic demands. And if your score is closer to or even above the 75th percentile, it’s a no brainer: you should definitely report your score to test-optional colleges.
A word to those who aren’t yet in their final year of secondary school: if you’re a good test-taker, strongly consider taking the exam, and if you want a higher score, consider taking it again. As a rough guide, you’re likely to be able to raise your score substantially if you have been scoring 80+ points higher on your practice exams, or if you haven’t spent much time studying (less than 25 hours).
Choice 2: Where to apply
The second choice point you have is what colleges to apply to in the first place. Of course, most students and families decide where to apply in part on the basis of where their SAT score is competitive. But it also stands to reason that some colleges place less emphasis on the SAT than others. Colleges don’t make public – or even specify internally – how much weight they place on each component of the application. But they do offer strong clues. There are two groups of colleges that have de-emphasized standardized test scores.
Dozens of colleges went test-optional before the pandemic, starting with Bowdoin College more than 50 years ago.
These test-optional pioneers weren’t dragged into it; they chose to go test-optional at a time when most of their peers still required it. The prime motivation has been to make it easier for less advantaged US students to apply and get in: as the University of Chicago put in when they went test-optional in 2018, “to enhance the accessibility of its undergraduate College for first-generation and low-income students.” Whatever the motivation, the policy typically applies to international students too (Smith College notwithstanding).
It has also given these colleges years to test whether students who get in without test scores can hack it. The answer has always been yes. “Bowdoin has regularly conducted tests to see if admissions choices made without tests are as accurate at predicting college success as are those where test scores are considered,” reported Inside Higher Ed in 2018. “There has never been a difference…” In other words, Bowdoin and other early test-optional adopters are now confident that they know how to choose good candidates who don’t submit an SAT/ACT score.
Colleges that stopped requiring the SAT/ACT prior to Covid also typically admit a higher proportion of students who don’t submit a test score than those who went test-optional due to Covid. I gathered data for more than 170+ colleges and found that colleges that went test-optional before Covid enrolled many more students who didn’t submit test scores during the most recent admissions cycle than their peers who only went test-optional due to Covid. Early test-optional colleges received an SAT score from 47% of students who enrolled in Fall 2020, and an ACT score from 31%, compared with 60% and 41% respectively for colleges that paused their requirement for Covid. (Note that some students submit both SAT and ACT scores, and we don’t yet have data on the class starting in 2021). This means that at least a quarter of students who started at early test-optional colleges in 2020 gained admission without a test score, while the figure at other colleges was certainly much lower.
Some admissions advisors argue that test-optional policies are meaningless. Not true, at colleges that adopted the new policy prior to Covid. If you don’t have a great SAT/ACT score, you likely have a better chance at admission if you apply to a college that admits lots of students like you.
Another set of colleges have recently gone all the way to being test blind, meaning that they will not consider SAT/ACT scores for any student. These colleges have dropped standardized testing entirely.
The most important of these is the entire University of California system, including UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Irvine, and 5 other campuses. Remarkably, the decision not to use test scores at all in the admissions process—permanently—was not made voluntarily by the University of California’s governing body, but instead was required by a judge. But because UC has agreed not to provide admissions officers with any SAT/ACT test scores, we can be confident that they will not play a role in admissions decisions.
The other top college that has ditched standardized tests in admissions is Caltech.
List of top colleges for students without a top SAT/ACT score
Six colleges ranked in the Times Higher Education / Wall Street Journal top 50 went test optional for international students prior to March 2020, and 5 more have gone test blind:
Another 26 colleges ranked between 51-150 by the THE/WSJ were either early to go test-optional or are now test blind. Many (but by no means all) of these pioneers are liberal arts colleges, which are smaller, undergraduate-focused institutions that often provide an outstanding education. But there are other options, such as Case Western Reserve, a technically-focused university in Ohio.
Test optional prior to Covid: American, Bates, Brandeis, Bucknell, Colorado College, Connecticut College, Creighton, Denison, Denver, Depauw, Franklin & Marshall, George Washington, Gettysburg, Holy Cross, Indiana, Pitzer, Sewanee, Skidmore, Trinity (CT), Union, Wake Forest, Whitman, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. (Bryn Mawr does not require the SAT/ACT for US students, but does require it of international students.)
Test blind: Pitzer, Reed, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. (Note that Pitzer and Worcester Polytechnic were both early test-optional adopters and have now gone test blind.)
Do keep in mind, however, that it’s not easier overall to gain admission to these colleges. Many of them have seen a huge rise in applications since they stopped requiring or looking at standardized tests. Caltech, for example, received 62% more applications for 2021 entry, after they went test-blind, than for 2020 entry. Since the number of places in the freshman class rarely expands at that kind of rate, the admission rate for such colleges is lower than ever. To gain admission without help from a sparkling SAT/ACT score, the rest of your application will have to be that much better: tough courses, top grades, outstanding extracurricular achievements, sterling recommendations, compelling essays.
As my high school science teacher told us when describing the law of the conservation of energy, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.