Does “Test Optional” Mean Optional for Me?

Matt Larriva
Jun 08, 2020

Part I: Does “test optional” mean optional for me?

We are all familiar with the difference between “optional” (it makes no difference whether you do or don’t) and “optional” (technically you can choose this, but you probably shouldn’t). You have the option to read Stephen King’s latest release (it’s quite good), and the option to serve as your own attorney (and have a fool as a client). Similarly, for universities that don’t require SAT and ACT scores, some students have the option to not submit test scores, while other students have the option to not submit test scores. Whom was this testing optional policy intended for, and in which camp do you fall? And what does it all mean if you’re applying to an University of California school, which recently announced itstheir decision to stop accepting the SAT and ACT in 2023? Read on for a guide to what ‘testing optional’ really means.

Motivation for schools to go ‘testing optional’

SAT and ACT scores are highly correlated with income. [1] In other words, students from low-income families are much more likely to underperform on standardized tests in comparison to those from high-income families. A 2013 study showed that the gap in scores between income levels was much larger for black students than white students. [2] This is unsurprising given that low income and underrepresented minority students frequently lack resources in comparison to privileged students. Both income and race play a significant role in how students prepare for standardized testing. [3] 

Considered today’s version of affirmative action, testing-optional policies are meant to level the playing field. (Whether these policies actually do so is debatable – but that’s another story. [3b, 3c]) Cornell University’s recent decision to temporarily suspend standardized testing requirements for admissions demonstrates this goal, citing “hardships and losses” [3d] as reasons why students might not take the SAT or ACT. In other words, their testing-optional policy is not meant for everyone; it’s designed for underprivileged students. 

Depending on your socioeconomic status and race, the choice to opt out of testing may well benefit or hurt your chances of college admissions. Research has shown that without affirmative action students from some underrepresented minority groups would be admitted to colleges at much lower rates – a great step towards leveling the playing field! However, other students (especially Asian Americans) see drops in admissions rates when affirmative action is present, leading to valid concerns about bias. [3e] As a student in today’s world, you clearly have a great deal to consider when applying to colleges. 

Deciding whether to take the SAT and/or ACT

So should you take the SAT or ACT? This depends. Think about the goals of youra college application: to put your best foot forward and to show your interest and talent in academic and extracurricular pursuits. In almost all cases, taking the SAT or ACT is inline with this goal. It shows that you are able to perform in stressful situations, over long durations. It illustrates that you have mastery over basic concepts expected of a college student. And, most importantly, it shows that you are willing to go above and beyond the minimum requirements to demonstrate your commitment to education. So are the SAT and ACT really optional when applying for a “testing optional” school? Sometimes, but not usually.  What does this all mean specifically for you? It likely comes down to this: is it reasonable to expect someone from your background to prepare for and score well on the SAT or ACT?

Testing advice based on your socioeconomic status and background

If you are from a low-income family or have experienced hardships such that it would be unreasonable to expect strong performance on the SAT or ACT, the testing optional policy was designed to benefit you. In fact, standardized testing has even been considered discriminatory against low-income students, with a recent court ruling that the UC system could be sued for requiring tests from low-income students. [3f] The schools recognize how arduous it is for a student who, say, has to work after school to help his family, to allocate time and resources to SAT prep. These are the students for whom the SAT and ACT are truly optional. That is, the test can only help you. Said differently, it is an option composed solely of upside. So, this does not mean that you should ignore the SAT or ACT. Showing off your ability to perform well in a high-pressure testing environment “gives students an edge in admissions” according to EdSource. [4] So, if you have the time, or if you are a naturally gifted tester, then head to your local library and check out a test prep book. You can also find free resources online. We recommend starting here for SAT prep and here for ACT prep. The SAT and ACT offer waivers for low-income students so that you can take the test for free and give your already strong application an added boost. 

If you fall in a middle-income bracket or are from a background such that it would be understandable if you did not have strong performance on the SAT or ACT, you have the most flexibility when deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT. Middle-income students can opt out of testing and it should not affect their admissions to testing-optional schools. However, if you fall into this category, there is the potential, and almost the expectation, that you could improve your admissions standing by demonstrating high standardized test scores. For example, a student with an average GPA but above average SAT or ACT scores will benefit from submitting their test scores with their college application. If your academic qualifications are below the average at your college or university of choice, now’s the time to start devoting plenty of time to SAT or ACT test prep. Like we mentioned above, there are many free resources available. As a middle-income student, you might have additional options such as test prep courses and private tutoring. There are a variety of companies devoted to SAT and ACT tutoring, and we hope that you’ll consider our 5-star tutoring service. If you do not choose to take the SAT or ACT and you are from a middle-income family but do not have a compelling reason to have opted out of testing, then your application could suffer for it.

Finally, what about the most privileged students? If your family falls into the highest income bracket, you will be at a disadvantage if you do not take the SAT or ACT – even if you are only applying to testing-optional schools. Furthermore, if you take the SAT or ACT and perform poorly you will still be at a disadvantage. For the most privileged students, the college admissions process is becoming increasingly competitive; you are expected to take the test and score well. Luckily, your family has the economic resources to prepare you for the test, and, if you are a high school student reading this, right now is the time to start that preparation. A 2010 research study showed that SAT and ACT group prep courses boost test scores – but not as much as private tutoring does. [5] If you have the ability to afford private tutoring, it’s definitely the best bet for improving your scores and therefore your chances of admissions. 

Advice for students applying to the UC system

So, what if you plan to apply to the UC system? We’ll break down our advice based on when you plan to begin your first year of college.

  1. For students planning to begin college in 2021 or 2022, the UC system will adopt a test-optional policy. If you fall into this category, it’s great news for you. All you need to do is follow our advice about testing from the last few paragraphs according to your socioeconomic status. 
  2. If you will be starting college in 2023 or 2024, know that the UC system will be test-blind. Even if you take the SAT or ACT, the UC system will not review or consider your score during the admissions process. However, you should still take the test if you want to be eligible for scholarships, post-enrollment course placement, and/or statewide admissions guarantees. Why not try to snag that extra scholarship…especially when lots of other students have made themselves ineligible by not taking the test?
  3. If you won’t be starting college until 2025 or beyond, the UC system’s policies are still unclear for you. The UC system plans to create its own admissions test, and if it is able to do so by 2025 then you will be expected to take the UC system’s admissions exam instead of the SAT or ACT. If the UC system cannot create its own test by 2025, it plans to eliminate standardized testing requirements altogether. At this point, we will have to wait and see. [6]

Were you surprised to learn that the UC system plans to create its own admissions test? Their decision stems from a desire to reduce bias and promote diversity on their campuses. Ironically, all colleges and universities used to have their own admissions tests, and the SAT was actually touted as a tool to level the playing field. Prospective students would have to go to each campus and take its admissions test, which would obviously be a big hurdle to those who couldn’t easily travel there. The SAT was meant to improve equity, allowing students to take an admissions test wherever they were located. While we hope that the UC system can achieve its goal of creating an equitable system, we have our doubts about how realistically this can be achieved. Most importantly, we feel for high school students, parents, teachers and counselors who are most likely more confused than ever by such rapidly changing admissions policies.

Understand what “testing optional” really means for students like you

Remember that just because a school touts a “testing optional” policy does not mean that they want all their applicants to forgo tests. Certainly for some students, it would be unreasonable to expect them to submit test scores– students who face challenges because of their socioeconomic statuses or who are first-generation students or non-native English speakers may all fall into this category. Still, there are other students for whom the decision to opt out of testing would harm the applicant. Students who come from backgrounds that afford a number of opportunities, who are from wealthy districts, or who are being compared with a cohort who all chose to take the test are all examples of students for whom the testing-optional policy does not necessarily pertain. Understand which camp you fall in, and try to estimate what a college would expect of  you and whom you will be competing against for your seat in school, and then decide if the SAT and ACT are optional or optional.