Test-Optional: What Does it Mean and Should I Take the ACT or SAT?

An expert admission coach's perspective on what "test-optional" really means in college applications, and whether or not you should take the test and submit your scores.

Bruce H.

By Bruce H.

Posted March 7, 2024

Table of Contents

Starting in 2020 there was an enormous shift in how college applications were evaluated, as many colleges and universities made the ACT and SAT an optional part of the application. For parents and students, the switch to ‘test optional’ made an already confusing college application process even more confusing. I know, I didn’t think that was possible either.

The good news is that I’m about to make all of this ‘test optional’ business MUCH easier to understand. In about 10 minutes you’re going to know exactly what ‘test optional’ means and whether you (or your son or daughter) should take the ACT/SAT and whether you should submit scores or not.

The Essentials

Colleges and universities fit into one of three buckets.

Bucket #1: Schools that require an ACT or SAT score. As of this writing, Fair Test is reporting that about 25% of schools do require an ACT or SAT score so you will have to submit one with your application.

Bucket #2: Schools that will not accept an ACT or SAT score. As of this writing, about 10% of schools will not look at an ACT or SAT score, even if you submit one.

Bucket #3: Test-optional schools. This leaves about 65% of schools as test-optional. If you choose to submit an ACT or SAT score, you can, and your score will be an important data point in your application. You can also choose NOT to submit a score, and your application will be evaluated without factoring in a test score. There is no penalty for not submitting a score.

Something to keep in mind – schools do switch buckets. Yale, Dartmouth, and Brown, for example, recently announced that they will now require an ACT or SAT score. So be sure to check with your target schools to get the most recent ACT/SAT requirements. Don’t worry. It’s not hard. They’ll tell you the requirements on their websites. The worst case scenario is you’ll need to call the admissions department.

Great – But Should I Take the ACT/SAT or NOT?

If you are definitely and absolutely ONLY applying to schools that DO NOT require an ACT or SAT score, then congratulations – you win! You don’t need to worry about the test.

If you are applying to even one school that requires an ACT or SAT score, then you MUST take either the ACT or SAT.

If you are applying only to test-optional schools, then you have to decide if you should take the ACT/SAT or not.

Generally, I recommend that students take the ACT or SAT. A test score is just one more tool that can help you get accepted to your target school. A good score can help your chances quite a bit. And you don’t have to submit your scores unless you’re sure it will help you get accepted, so there’s really no downside.

Should I Submit My Score or Not?

Good test scores only help your chances of getting accepted. But what’s a ‘good’ test score? It’s any score that is above the median for your target school. So, if the school you’re applying to has a median SAT score of – say 1180 – and you score 1220, then you should definitely submit your score. It will help your chances of being admitted. If you score below 1180, then don’t submit your score as it will likely decrease your chances of getting accepted. Schools generally publish the average scores of the last incoming class on their websites. If not, you might just have to call the admissions department to get that information.

My general recommendation is that, for most students, it’s worth the time and energy to prep and take the ACT or SAT. If you don’t score well, there’s no downside – simply don’t submit your scores. If you do score well, then you have one more very compelling data point in your application to convince the admissions team that you belong at their school.

One more thing to consider: If you have an ACT or SAT score, then you can submit the scores strategically. Include scores in applications for schools in which your scores are above the median test score. Don’t include the scores in applications for schools in which your scores are below the median test score.

If your scores are right at the median, then my recommendation is not to submit scores unless your academics (GPA, class rank, difficulty of classes, etc.) are weak. In that case, a test score is your best way to show the admissions committee that you have the academic ability to handle their program. The general rule is: only submit test scores if they can help you.

Is There Anything Else to Consider?

There is one more thing to consider. If you are an excellent student with an already excellent application, submitting a test score isn’t necessary and might even hurt your chances of getting accepted.

If you are in the fortunate position of surpassing all of the requirements for your target school (GPA, class rank, extracurriculars, etc) and if you are confident that you are submitting an outstanding application that not only ticks but exceeds all of the admissions boxes for a particular school – then quit while you’re ahead. Unless your test scores just blow away the average test score for that school, you have nothing to gain by submitting a test score. And it’s possible that submitting a test score that isn’t absolutely fabulous could actually hurt your chances of getting accepted.

If, on the other hand, your academic record was more like mine (not bad, but a bit mixed) then submitting a high test score is a great way to wipe away any doubts or questions about your academic ability. A really good test score can greatly increase your chances of getting into that ‘reach’ school you’re dreaming about.

Key Takeaways

  1. Submit a test score to a test-optional school if your score is above the median score for that school.
  2. If you’re applying to any test-optional schools, generally taking the ACT or SAT and getting a score is helpful. It gives you the option of submitting test scores if your scores are above the median for a particular school. And there is little downside. If your scores are below the median for a certain school, just don’t submit them.
  3. If you already have an exceptional application and you exceed every requirement for your target school, don’t submit a test score unless it completely crushes the median test score for the school.

Bruce H. is a Wharton MBA and professional test prep coach. He is a former Curriculum Development and Test Prep Instructor at UCLA and has more than ten years of experience helping hundreds of students reach their target ACT/SAT scores. Book a FREE intro call with Bruce, and get one step closer to your target score today!

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