What Do Test-Optional Schools Look For In College Application

More and more colleges and universities are becoming test-optional schools, which means you may or may not submit your SAT or ACT scores when applying to them. And this may leave you wondering what sort of things the admissions officers will look at if you do not include your standardized test scores in your application.

In general, test-optional schools pay the most attention to GPA and academic rigor. To increase the chances of getting into test-optional colleges the student must take more rigorous classes, such as AP, IB, and Honors. Other factors include essays, recommendation letters, and extracurricular activities.

Below, we discuss the things that admissions officers will check out if your SAT or ACT scores are not available.

Keep on reading if you would like to understand better how you can increase your chances of getting admitted into the test-optional college or university of your dreams without relying on your standardized exam scores.

Test-Optional vs. Test-Flexible vs. Test-Blind

When test-optional is mentioned, it’s not unlikely for other admission processes to be mentioned, too, such as test-flexible and test-blind.

It’s due to this why it’s a great idea for any student applying to a college to know the key differences between test-optional schools, test-flexible schools, and test-blind schools.

Today, more and more colleges and universities fall under any one of these categories.

No matter if you are not happy with your SAT or ACT score, have not taken any standardized test, or want the school to focus on other determinants of your college readiness (e.g., GPA, extracurricular activities, work experience, personal essay, etc.), applying to a school where SAT or ACT scores are optional or unnecessary makes perfect sense.

Let’s get to know some of the things that set test-optional schools, test-flexible schools and test-blind schools apart from each other, as well as the pros and cons of each one:

Test-Optional

As the name suggests, test-optional colleges and universities make the submission of SAT or ACT scores optional during the admission process. In other words, the students can choose to submit their standardized test scores or not, for whatever reason they deem fit to exclude them in their application.

Because there’s one less criterion admissions officers may use to gauge an applicant’s college readiness, it’s for certain that they will focus on other things when deciding whether to accept or reject the student.

Some schools are test-optional for good, while others are test-optional temporarily. No matter the case, these colleges and universities will still consider SAT or ACT scores if they are submitted.

They are nothing like test-blind schools — we will talk about them in a few, so don’t stop reading now — that does not look at standardized test scores.

Pros

  • You can choose not to include your SAT or ACT scores in your application if you believe that they are not accurate reflections of your ability to succeed in college.
  • You can apply to colleges and universities known to admit applicants with high SAT or ACT scores that have recently embraced a test-optional admission process.

Cons

  • You will have to make sure that the rest of your application is enough to impress the admissions officers, which is key to gaining admission to the school of your choice.
  • You will have to compete against more students, some of which could be more deserving of being admitted than you, as test-optional schools tend to attract more applicants.

Test-Flexible

Schools that are test-flexible allow applicants to submit a variety of tests to showcase their readiness for college.

Simply put, they are test-optional schools that let the students decide whether or not they want to submit their SAT or ACT scores — yes, submitting your SAT or ACT scores is enough when applying to a test-flexible school.

However, besides your SAT or ACT scores, you may also submit other test scores. Some common examples are the Advanced Placement (AP) test score and International Baccalaureate (IB) test score.

Different test-flexible colleges and universities have different lists of which test scores they allow students to submit to support their applications. Needless to say, it’s a must to check the school’s admission requirements.

But no matter the tests on the list, you must submit at least one test score when applying to a test-flexible school.

Pros

  • You can emphasize your talents and skills, which admissions officers also look for in applicants, during the admission process to increase your chances of getting admitted.
  • You can choose from among different test scores you will submit to let the college or university see that you are what they are looking for.

Cons

  • You will have to submit at least one test score that you are proud of — it doesn’t matter which one, for as long as it’s on the school’s list of accepted tests.
  • You may have lower chances of getting admitted into the college or university than an applicant with a more impressive test score and overall application, too.

Test-Blind

No matter how low or high your SAT or ACT scores are, it doesn’t matter — test-blind schools won’t take a look at them even if you submit them.

There are more test-optional schools than test-blind schools.

However, these days, over 50 colleges and universities have decided not to consider standardized test scores in the admissions process, which is advantageous for students who are not happy with their SAT or ACT scores or could not take the SAT or ACT.

What’s nice about applying to a test-blind school is that you can rest assured that the admissions officers will not prefer students who submitted their SAT or ACT scores over you — again, they have removed standardized test scores from the list of criteria used when deciding the fate of applicants.

Pros

  • You can experience less stress and anxiety during the last couple of years in high school as you can skip taking the SAT or ACT unless taking them is mandatory in your state.
  • You can be 100% sure that the admissions officers will not consider your SAT or ACT scores, especially if you are not happy with them.

Cons

  • You have wasted your time reviewing for and taking the SAT or ACT if the colleges and universities you will be applying to all have a test-blind admission process.
  • You will have to make sure that everything else in your application says that you should be the one admitted into the school, especially if it’s selective, rather than another applicant.

Now that you know the key differences between test-optional, test-flexible and test-blind schools, let’s answer this question before proceeding to the next topic…

Is a test-optional admission process new?

The test-optional admission process is nothing new. In 1969, Bowdoin College, a private liberal arts school in Brunswick, Maine, became the very first test-optional school in the US. Some small liberal arts schools followed suit. Today, even some elite schools have a test-optional admission process.

A growing body of US colleges and universities, including selective ones such as Ivy League schools, at least until fall 2020, are now test-optional schools.

While the test-optional admission process has been around since the late 1960s, it was only recently when numerous US schools have chosen to give their applicants a choice to include or exclude their SAT or ACT scores in their application. It all started when the University of Chicago, an elite research university, became test-optional in 2018.

Earlier, we mentioned that some schools are test-optional only in the meantime.

Other colleges and universities, on the other hand, have been and will be test-optional for good, unless otherwise stated. Let’s take a look at them before we proceed to the next topic:

  • American University
  • Bates College
  • Bennington College
  • Bowdoin College
  • Bryn Mawr College
  • Clark University
  • College of Atlantic
  • Cornell College
  • Dickinson College
  • Earlham College
  • The George Washington University
  • Hamilton College
  • Hofstra University
  • Knox College
  • Pitzer College
  • Saint Lawrence University
  • Sarah Lawrence College
  • Skidmore College
  • Smith College
  • Texas A&M University
  • Trinity College
  • Union College
  • University of Chicago
  • University of Iowa
  • University of Rochester
  • Wake Forest University
  • Wesleyan University
  • Wofford College

Why Schools are Going Test-Optional

Nowadays, it seems like the norm among many US colleges and universities is to have a test-optional admission process. If you ask these schools, many of them will tell you that they no longer believe that standardized test scores are accurate determinants of students’ college readiness.

It’s pretty clear that the applicants can benefit tremendously from a test-optional admission process.

That’s because having low SAT or ACT scores or having no standardized test score at all should not keep them from applying to their chosen schools. This is especially true for those who would like to give a shot applying to selective schools known to accept students with high SAT or ACT scores.

However, it’s not just the students that can benefit a lot from a test-optional admission process. Colleges and universities that have gone test-optional can benefit, too.

As a matter of fact, schools can benefit from going test-optional in a couple of ways:

Diversity

Everyone knows that students who do not study enough for the SAT or ACT often get low standardized test scores.

However, there are also certain students that tend to get some of the lowest SAT or ACT scores. They are minority groups, students from low-income families, and first-generation college students.

Because of this, many of these students apply only to test-optional or test-blind colleges and universities or those that admit students with low SAT or ACT scores.

This causes non-selective schools to be diverse while leaving selective schools to be less diverse.

By having a test-optional admission process, schools can enjoy more diversity since it will encourage minority groups and others that usually get low SAT or ACT scores to apply to them.

Generally speaking, diversity makes a school look good because it gives underrepresented students a chance to have a high-quality education.

Selectivity

Many students dream about going to selective schools. There’s something about being a student at a selective college or university that can fill the heart with pride and joy and pack one’s future with opportunities.

On the other hand, schools love being selective as it makes them appear more prestigious and desirable to those who would like to get their hands on college degrees. And being test-optional can make it happen. By removing SAT or ACT scores as part of the admission process, more students will apply to them.

However, it doesn’t mean that everyone who applies will be admitted. Test-optional schools will still screen the applicants and admit only those that are deserving of being admitted. With increased applicants and the number of admitted students practically the same, a school’s acceptance rate will decrease.

It’s no secret that a low acceptance rate is one of the characteristics of some of the most elite schools out there.

For instance, Stanford University has a 4% acceptance rate, making the school appear the best.

7 Things That Test Optional Schools Look For

First things first: having a test-optional admission process does not make it easier to get admitted into the school.

While the admissions officers will not be able to use your SAT or ACT scores in sealing your fate if you choose not to submit them, rest assured that they will make a decision by looking elsewhere on your application.

Due to this, test-optional may be advantageous for some, while it may be disadvantageous for others.

Colleges and universities want more information, not less, when it comes to deciding whether a student should be accepted or is better off going to another school. And since there are no SAT or ACT scores around, test-optional schools will just consider other things during the admission process.

Different test-optional schools have different selection factors. However, the majority of them will indeed take a look at the following to come up with the right decision:

Essays

essay
Image credit: Canva

According to a 2019 survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the admission essay is the fifth most important selection factor in the admission process of a lot of schools.

With the SAT or ACT scores, which ranked fourth in the survey, out of the picture, the admission essay then becomes a major role player.

There is no denying that the admission essay is a crucial part of the admission process.

Your admission essay will allow you to showcase your writing style alright. More importantly, it will allow the admissions officers to know something about you that may have not been mentioned elsewhere in your application.

Recommendation letters

Admissions officers love seeing high GPAs. However, they also love knowing how a student got high grades through engaging with the materials and solving problems.

This is when the importance of a recommendation letter comes in. While it’s just one part of your application, it can help reveal how well-rounded you are as a student — colleges and universities love well-rounded students!

Most selective colleges and universities require the applicants to submit one to three letters of recommendation. They are usually from the guidance counselor and at least one teacher. Other people who can write recommendation letters are coaches, employers and clients, but never family members.

GPA

Earlier, we mentioned a National Association for College Admission Counseling survey in which the different selection factors in the admission process of various schools were ranked.

The number one selection factor in that survey was the GPA.

Based on numerous research, the GPA is the best predictor of a high school graduate’s likelihood to succeed in college. It’s due to this why many colleges and universities have a preference for applicants with higher GPAs.

However, keep in mind that admissions officers are aware that the GPA does not give the whole picture of an applicant.

Class rank

A class rank allows a way to see how your academic performance measures up against your classmates.

Because of this, most colleges and universities consider class rank as a crucial part of the admissions process. Thanks to your class rank, the admissions officers will find it easier to put your GPA into context.

Class rank is so important that some state colleges and universities guarantee admission of applicants who graduated from high school with a certain class rank.

However, only 60% of high schools in the US use class rank. Worry not if yours doesn’t use a class rank because you are not alone.

Likewise, not having a class rank will not be used against you by the admissions officers. It’s not your fault if your high school doesn’t have a class rank, although they will surely consider other numbers in your application.

Interview

Admissions interviews are conducted by only a few colleges and universities, the majority of which are selective schools.

In many cases, interviews are required or recommended, while other times, they are optional. Admissions interviews can be evaluative (can impact the admissions officers’ decision) or informational only.

Generally speaking, admissions interviews are friendly in nature.

By the way, it’s fine to ask your interviewer some questions during the interview. For instance, if the interviewer is an alum, you may ask him or her what his or her experience was like at the college or university.

Extracurricular activities

Your academic rigor can be revealed by various parts of your application, such as your GPA and class rank.

However, there are also things in applicants that admissions officials look for that cannot be measured in numbers. It’s because of this exactly why extracurricular activities are important selection factors, too.

Some of the best extracurricular activities for colleges and universities include leadership activities, internships, work experience, athletic participation, political activism, technological skills, and creative pursuits.

Although there are 10 spaces available for extracurricular activities, there is no need to fill out all of them.

As a matter of fact, it’s a much better idea to include only one to three extracurricular activities that meant so much to you than include 10 different ones that had no significance in shaping your high school life.

Academic Rigor

Last but not least, there are college preparatory courses considered during the admission process. This is true whether or not the school you are applying to is test-optional.

Colleges and universities are on the hunt for students who keep challenging themselves academically. It’s because of this why they check if the applicants took honors courses, AP courses or IB courses, if available. The harder the course, the more you can impress those admissions officers!

Do not despair if these courses are not available in your high school — they will not be used as a selection factor by the admissions officers when deciding.

Related Post: Can I Get Into A Good School Without APs or honors?

Just Before You Apply to a Test-Optional School

Refrain from assuming that applying to a test-optional college or university will guarantee 100% admission. It’s true that they will not ask for your SAT or ACT scores if you do not submit them alright. But since there are no standardized test scores to look at, the admissions officers will certainly check out other parts of your application.

You have the absolute freedom to include or exclude your SAT or ACT scores.

No matter your decision, make sure that the rest of your application, such as your GPA, admission essay and letters of recommendation, are strong enough for the admissions officers to pick you over another applicant.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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