Of all the havoc that the pandemic wrought, it has brought some well-meaning changes too. In an upswell of social justice, colleges and universities chose to try to expand access to education by making the SAT and ACT optional for applicants. This left many students questioning if they need to take the SAT at all.
Yet like many broad policies enacted overnight, there were many other questions left unanswered:
- “for whom is the test optional but recommended?”
- “for whom does submitting an ACT or SAT score help?”
- “does optional mean less important?”
- “what should one do to differentiate if they chose to not submit an SAT or ACT score?”
The colleges were slow to come up with answers and then obscured those answers by, largely, still admitting students who chose to submit test scores. So if you find yourself confused by what “optional” really means, it is not your fault.
In this article, we compile the latest research, our own analysis, and a body of data to answer these questions to the best extent possible.
So, if you’re looking to answer the question, “should I prepare, test, and submit an ACT or SAT test score in today’s admissions climate, given my unique situation?” then read on for guidance.
- Should You Take the SAT or ACT?
- Should I even prepare to take an ACT or SAT?
- Who definitely should not prepare?
- Will the school I am applying to look at the scores?
- Will my cohort of applicants be submitting test scores, and can I reasonably score as well as them?
- Who definitely should prepare to take the ACT or SAT?
- What are the advantages of preparing, testing, and submitting an ACT or SAT score?
- Policies versus actions
- I've prepared and tested. Should I submit?
- Instead of Taking The ACT or SAT…
- Conclusion: Test-optional does not mean easier admissions or less work
- Schedule a FREE Consultation
Should You Take the SAT or ACT?
Let’s start by working through the questions on the infographic below to see if you should prepare to take an ACT or SAT test. We’ll be taking a closer look at things in the sections following the infographic, so be sure to keep reading once you’ve finished answering the questions. This way, you can be confident in your decision to test or not to test.
Let’s get started!
(Click or tap the image to view a full-size version)
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Should I even prepare to take an ACT or SAT?
If you’re reading this article, then the answer is “probably.”
You are someone who is looking to gain an edge by making an optimal decision, but you are also thoughtful enough to investigate the topic and analytical enough to evaluate advice in your specific situation. Chances are, a student like that will do well by preparing and submitting his or her test score, but it is a tricky topic. Let’s start by addressing the clearer side: who should not test?
Who definitely should not prepare?
There are a few common situations where students can safely avoid taking the ACT or SAT test (and submitting scores) without fear of penalty.
Here they are:
1. If the student is only applying to Test-blind schools
The first is if they are only applying to schools that are test-blind (where the tests will not be considered), such as the University of California Schools. In that case, refer to our guide on UC Admissions Requirements to make sure you have everything you need for a successful application.
2. When test-prep hinders GPA or extracurricular competitiveness
The second situation in which students can safely avoid ACT or SAT testing is when doing so would significantly harm their GPA or extracurricular competitiveness.
That is, if you think that ACT or SAT test prep would take such a tremendous toll on your time that your GPA would falter or that you could no longer be a nationally-ranked chess player, then test prep should not be a focus of yours.
It is more important to maintain a strong GPA and a strong extracurricular profile than it is to score well on the SAT or ACT.
Another version of this scenario is having an extremely low relative starting score. For example, a student who has a 3.5 GPA while taking relatively difficult classes and who scored a 10 (out of 36) on their practice ACT would have to dedicate such significant time to test prep that it would probably not be worth it, relative to other activities he or she could do.
3. Students with unique circumstances
The final clear-cut situation in which students should not prep is when it would be unrealistic to expect someone in their position to be able to score well, given their unique circumstances.
For example, if a student has to work part-time to support his family while attending high school and playing a sport, then it would be unrealistic to expect that student to have the time or resources available to engage in test prep and score at a competitive level.
Similarly, if a student is from a family wherein he is the first to pursue advanced education, his parents are immigrants, and the family is economically disadvantaged, then it would be unreasonable to expect that student to navigate the test-prep and test-taking process.
Now contrast this with a student who has taken piano lessons from the time he was 8, takes lovely vacations abroad, and attends private school. Such a student has clearly demonstrated the resources to navigate the educational system and the resources to pursue excellence through the use of private teachers.
It is our view that it would be reasonable for colleges to expect such a student to prepare and score reasonably well on their standardized test of choice. But we would also make the following caveat: we are only referring to the SAT and ACT exams, not the AP exams.
Will the school I am applying to look at the scores?
If applying to only test-blind schools, then the answer is “no”, the school will not be looking at scores, so one should not prepare for the test.
If the answer is “yes”– some or all of the schools applied to will be looking at test scores–then proceed and ask yourself the next question.
Will my cohort of applicants be submitting test scores, and can I reasonably score as well as them?
By “cohort” we mean the pool of students whose position is similar to your own, as demonstrated by demographics, academics, etc. If the answer to both questions is “no”–the majority of my cohort will likely not submit test scores; and no, I do not believe I can score reasonably well– then that student should not test, as they would be unlikely to suffer any severe penalty to their application’s competitiveness by not doing so.
However, if that student believes they can score reasonably well without damaging their GPA or extracurricular exceptionality, then it would benefit them to prepare and submit their test scores.
If a student answers yes to the first half of the question–the majority of my cohort will be submitting scores–and yes to the second half–I believe I can score reasonably well compared to the rest of my cohort–then that student should submit scores.
However, if their answer to the second half is no–I do not believe that I can score reasonably well or that preparing for the test would damage either GPA or extracurricular exceptionality–then that student should not test.
While test scores may be valuable for a competitive application, students’ GPA and extracurriculars are the heart of their application, and it is more important to maintain those than to seek the bonus points that taking the SAT or ACT would provide.
Similarly, if a student is exceptional extracurricularly (nationally ranked, recruited athletes, recognizable actors, prodigies), then although his or her cohort of students will be submitting tests, he or she does not need to prepare as schools will be more interested in the extracurricular and will not really be looking at a test score.
Who definitely should prepare to take the ACT or SAT?
If a student does not fall in one of the above categories then he or she should probably prepare for the SAT or ACT.
Even a student whose dream school is test-optional will likely benefit from preparing and taking one of the tests. Whether or not that student should submit their final score is another matter addressed below.
What are the advantages of preparing, testing, and submitting an ACT or SAT score?
To answer this question it is important to understand exactly standardized test scores are helpful to colleges in their decision-making process.
In short, tests give colleges context for understanding a student’s academic performance. Because high schools use the same grading scale (4.0 GPA) but vary in terms of academic quality and rigor, an “A” at one high school may not mean the same thing as an “A” from another. Standardized tests allow colleges to bridge the gap and help them better understand the true significance of a student’s academic achievements.
This is especially true for students coming from less competitive high schools or who are applying to colleges to which their high school does not normally send students. In these cases, the college is simply unfamiliar with the student’s high school and can use the extra context of the SAT or ACT to reduce uncertainty and make accepting that student easier.
Have questions about the SAT or ACT tests? Read the FAQs:
There are other, more obscure, benefits colleges receive from students submitting test scores having to do with improving a college’s rank in the US News and World Report, but these are outside of the scope of this article.
The key benefit for students in taking the SAT or ACT is that submitting strong scores improves admissions chances.
Test-optional policies take the SAT and ACT from mandatory to “optional” in the same way that other standardized tests are optional (think AP, IB, and SAT Subject tests).
The SAT and ACT can be thought of in the same framework as those other standardized tests: they differentiate students from their peers by helping a student demonstrate their mastery of the material and drive them to seek out optional methods of showing that mastery.
However, the SAT and ACT have an additional function in college applications that tests like the AP and IB tests lack.
This was their primary purpose when they were required as part of college applications, and just because colleges have adopted test-optional policies, does not mean that the colleges do not care about the scores.
Indeed, they are still helpful in the same way: to assist in evaluating a student’s likelihood of succeeding in the applied-to institution. And although test scores were never the most important factor of an application, they have always helped colleges understand the part of the student’s application that is amongst the most important: GPA and rigor of courses.
Additional benefits to taking an SAT or ACT test
There are some additional though less important benefits to taking the SAT or ACT.
One is that submitting a test score can have an impact on placement in college classes. Some colleges use test scores to place students in the reading, writing, and math classes that are at the right level for them. Some schools also use scores to identify which students may benefit from academic support in college.
Furthermore, the SAT specifically can help students gain the interest of colleges before the application season even begins. The PSAT/NMSQT, SAT, and PSAT 10 provide a section where students can indicate they would like to have their information shared with interested colleges. While this does not directly benefit students who already have a dream college in mind, it can still be a useful tool for students in refining their college shortlist.
Test scores can also help students earn scholarships.
Some colleges use test scores (alone or in combination with other characteristics and achievements) to determine scholarship recipients, while others sometimes even automatically award scholarships to those who earn above a certain score. Other organizations and private companies that award scholarships may also require students to submit test scores as part of their application process.
That said, the extent to which test scores can impact this particular area is less certain: this has been an under-researched area even since before the COVID-19 pandemic, so there is little data that can precisely measure the impact of SAT and ACT scores on merit aid awards.
Therefore, preparing for and submitting a standardized test score is well worth considering, even if most schools are likely to remain test-optional for the foreseeable future.
However, if you are still uncertain about the importance of testing and submitting your scores, consider this: colleges mean different things when they say testing is “optional” and your understanding of “optional” may be very different from the school’s intention. Reach out to your target school’s admissions office to ask what their suggestions are, and then see if it matches what their admissions statistics say. The two are not always aligned.
Policies versus actions
What do schools mean when they say “test optional?” Although most schools have adopted test-optional policies, that does not mean that every school is executing this policy the same way.
In most schools, students who submit tests have higher admissions rates than students who do not submit tests.
This occurs on a gradient, with some schools having very nearly equal admissions rates for testers and non-testers while other “test-optional” schools show a clear preference for test-takers.
On the former end of that scale are the more non-tester-friendly institutions.
During the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, these schools had either a minimal difference between the acceptance rates of testers and non-testers (such as at Vanderbilt, USC, and Northeastern) or an almost equal number of testers and non-testers admitted into the matriculating class (such as at Wellesley, Barnard, and USC).
|School||% of Applicants: Testers||% Admitted: Testers||Admission Rate: Testers||Admission Rate: Non-Testers|
However, with the exception of Northeastern and Vanderbilt, the data clearly shows that test-submitters had a slight admissions advantage.
All the other schools listed still saw test-submitters having a higher admissions rate (even if it was only slightly higher in most cases) compared to the relatively smaller proportion of the applicant pool that these students made up.
The minimal advantages end here, however.
Most other schools, especially highly competitive ones, saw a more dramatic difference between the success rates of test-submitters vs their non-submitting counterparts.
Schools such as Davidson, Georgia Tech, Georgetown, UPenn, and Boston University admitted a larger percentage of students who submitted scores than those who did not, and their admissions rate for test-submitters was around twice that of non-test-submitters.
A few schools, such as Georgia Tech and UPenn, even saw an astronomical difference between the percent of test-submitters accepted when compared to the percentage of applicants who were test-submitters: nearly 80% admitted in both cases compared to only 60% of initial applicants they made up.
Even the University of Chicago (not listed in the chart below), the poster-child for test-optional admissions at top-tier schools since their admissions policy change in 2018, still seems to favor admitting students who submit test scores over those who do not.
During the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, 77% of enrolled students had submitted either an SAT or ACT score with their application. While we do not have data on what percentage of applicants chose to submit a test score, it is likely similar to those listed below.
|School||Percent of Applicants: Testers||Percent Admitted: Testers||Admission Rate: Testers||Admission Rate: Non-Testers|
The only true outlier in this data was, surprisingly, Georgetown.
The percentage of applicants who chose to submit a test score was almost the same as the percentage of test-submitters who were accepted. As a result, it looks like Georgetown applicants self-selected to be mostly voluntary test-submitters.
That is to say, applicants who did not think they had competitive enough test scores to submit mostly chose not to submit any application rather than to submit an application without an optional test score.
The reason for this is likely due to the very vocal importance Georgetown places on standardized test scores. They have been upfront with their intention to return to a required-testing policy when it is safe to do so as well as with their recommendation that applicants submit a test score when able.
So, it would be wise not to take Georgetown’s outlier status here as a sign that there might be a secret advantage to opting out of submitting test scores when applying.
There are two major caveats to this data.
Firstly, similar to how many Georgetown applicants self-selected to be test submitters, the high percentage of admitted test-submitting applicants could also be due, in part, to self-selection. Most of the students who submitted test scores to these test-optional schools did so likely because they had excellent test scores.
Therefore, even though many schools (and most Ivy League schools) are refusing to release test score data for their current admissions cycles, based on what we do know about test score data at traditionally test-optional schools, it is highly likely that most submitted scores are relatively high, and likely higher than previous, normal admissions cycles.
As a result, when we say that the data shows that students who submit test scores will likely have an advantage (whether large or small) over students who did not submit test scores, we are not saying that submitting any test score will provide students with an advantage.
And second, though the data here shows a general bias towards students who submit test scores, it may not inherently be because of the test scores themselves.
Imagine two students from a similar socioeconomic background, who both have a similar GPA and level of academic rigor, and whose extracurriculars are either similar in and of themselves or have a similar level of uniqueness when compared to the rest of the applicant pool.
Now imagine that one of those students submitted an SAT or ACT score and the other did not. How the tiebreaker is resolved should be self-evident.
Most applicants, especially those applying to top schools, are going to be relatively similar to the rest of their fellow applicants, so the apparent bias towards test-submitters shown in the data above could be due more to colleges using test scores as a differentiating factor rather than an inherent desire to favor students who submit scores.
I’ve prepared and tested. Should I submit?
While there is very little harm in preparing for the SAT or ACT, there is more to consider when deciding whether or not one’s scores are worth submitting.
First of all, students who score above the median (or in the 50th percentile) of their target school’s average accepted test scores should submit their score with their application.
Secondly, students with a less traditional high school experience should strongly consider submitting test scores.
This includes students who attended a fully virtual high school, were homeschooled, or experienced some other significant disruptions during their high school career, such as completing part of high school in another country or being forced to retake a year due to a prolonged illness.
In these cases, colleges need the context of a standardized test to better understand a student’s academic performance for the reasons stated above.
Students who are scoring below the median of their target school’s average should not submit their scores.
They should instead focus on making the other areas of their application as competitive as possible since they will have to not only make up for the inherent bias most schools seem to have towards students who submit scores with their application, but also because they will be competing with other students with similar applications who did submit decent test scores.
The final category of student is the most challenging: those who scored close to the median on either the ACT or SAT.
These students’ scores are neither particularly impressive nor particularly bad, and whether or not it is in their best interest to submit their test score will largely depend on what school they are applying to.
Students who are applying to schools like Northeastern or Vanderbilt, which see little difference in the acceptance rates between testing and non-testing students, can choose to not submit their test scores without much fear of it impacting their admissions chances.
Students applying to schools like Georgetown or Boston University, which have a marked difference between the acceptance rates of testing and non-testing students, will likely want to submit their test scores.
Students who fall into one of the following categories may not need to be as worried about the impact of not submitting a score:
- students who have a particularly strong academic record (especially if they are not going into a STEM field)
- are truly exceptional in some other non-academic way (such as working as the personal assistant of a famous scientist on a big project)
- or are part of an underrepresented ethnic group and/or would be a first-generation college student and did not score well on their standardized test
Those are groups that The College Board reports as statistically underperforming on standardized tests, so a score near or above the median of a particular university may have a beneficial impact on the student’s admission chances.
In spite of all this, students would still be wise to reach out to their target schools’ admissions offices and ask directly, especially in cases where said student is unsure if their score will be a help or a hindrance to their application. What we have listed above is general advice and trends. Students should prioritize the advice of admissions officers and the student’s own targeted research into their target school’s policies.
Instead of Taking The ACT or SAT…
The greatest misconception about “test optional” is the notion that it means “less work.”
Students who choose to not submit ACT or SAT scores face a more competitive application pool than students who submit scores because more attention and importance will be placed on a smaller portion of the application, which in turn limits the ways students can differentiate themselves.
We recommend that students who choose to not submit a test score but do not fall into the above categories of “who should not prepare” take the time they would have spent on test prep and instead focus it on another part of their application that can help distinguish them from other applicants.
There are three main areas where students can distinguish themselves:
It is highly likely that students applying to top schools will all have extremely high GPAs while taking mostly advanced coursework, so this alone is not enough.
Additional difficult or interesting coursework, such as community college courses or other college coursework available to high school students, is one method of distinction.
Performing well on AP and/or IB exams is another. The same applies to other advanced coursework or optional testing not listed here.
Personal statements, supplementary essays, and letters of recommendation are all still required by colleges as part of their applications. They play a pivotal role in the applications of students who do submit test scores, and they are even more important for students who do not.
Students, especially those applying to public institutions without test scores, should take extra care with their written statements during this admissions cycle. Each should demonstrate not only something unique about the student but should also demonstrate that student’s college readiness.
All students participate in some sort of extracurricular activity, regardless of whether or not they perform that activity through their high school.
Much like GPA and academic rigor, just participating in Model United Nations all four years of high school or being the star member of the basketball team is not enough. Students also need to pursue competitions and recognition in their extracurricular activities.
So, don’t just be a Model United Nations delegate, represent your school in a national-level MUN competition and rank in the top 10 of participants.
Don’t just be a member of the basketball team, be the team captain and lead your team to rank in nationals.
If you cannot find the level of recognition and distinction within your high school, seek it elsewhere.
Conclusion: Test-optional does not mean easier admissions or less work
We set out to write a comprehensive guide on how students should think about preparing for, testing, and submitting an SAT or ACT score. We did not intend for it to be 4000 words long, but even this tome is the result of cutting everything we could. And, furthermore, we found that we needed an infographic to try to aid understanding.
The point is: the question is not simple; the answers are even more nuanced, and the situation is changing daily.
We have provided a framework for understanding and deciding if you should prepare and submit a test score, but in a landscape wherein colleges are touting one set of policies and admitting students based on another, we advise caution and individualized guidance where available.
If there is one central takeaway, it is this: “test-optional” does not mean easier admissions or less work.
Quite the opposite...
Where a few years ago schools would limit their application body by providing SAT and ACT scores as guidelines, now those goalposts are down, and they are seeing an influx of applications.
While that does indeed mean that a student who would have been culled for a low test score may now be admitted (as is the stated aim of the policy) it also means that a student has lower odds of admission than ever before, as the number of spots has not changed, but the applicants have surged.
It also means that differentiating oneself just became harder.
If one cannot do it on a standardized test, with a clear method of preparation and ranking, then one must create opportunities, which requires finding an area of focus, identifying a method of training, and gaining recognized excellence–a feat which is exponentially more obscure than preparing for a test.
We hope that over time this policy will be enacted in the method it was intended and that access to quality education expands. In all cases, we will be here with guidance, research, and analysis.
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Marc Gray, Client Success Manager
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Learn how our expertise can help your student get into their dream school using a customized test prep program.
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Need answers now? Call us at 805-876-4687 now to discuss.
Schedule a FREE Consultation
Learn how our expertise can help your student get into their dream school using a customized test prep program.
Schedule a consultation using the calendar below. Need answers now? Call us at 805-876-4687 now to discuss.