Is the SAT Optional?

It’s that time of year: college application season!

Between now and January 1st, most prospective college students will dive into what is arguably the most intense semester of their academic careers. For students applying Early Decision or Early Action to the schools on their list, the process has likely already begun.

Most college applications require students to submit a personal statement, resume, transcript, and recommendation letters. 

A large majority of these applications also require students to send along their standardized testing scores. 

But do you actually have to send your SAT scores to colleges? Is the SAT optional?

For some students, the SAT may not even have to play a role in the college admissions decision.

Here’s what we cover in this post:


Standardized Testing & College Admissions

A large portion of U.S. colleges and universities require students to submit test scores from either the SAT or the ACT. 

(Most colleges don’t prefer the SAT over the ACT or vice versa–they accept either equally.)

Notice how the University of Notre Dame’s profile on BigFuture (a College Board tool) specifies that this school requires SAT or ACT scores:

University of Notre Dame_Is the SAT Optional?University of Notre Dame_Is the SAT Optional? (Note: BigFuture can be a valuable resource, especially when inspecting schools’ score use policies. It may not always be up-to-date, though, so always check individual school websites to confirm SAT or ACT requirements.)

The big question, of course, is the role SAT or ACT scores play in the college admission decision. How much weight do colleges actually give them?

This is a hard question to answer. Most institutions aren’t that forthcoming when it comes to discussing what they prioritize in making their admission decisions.

Is the SAT Optional_ Quote 1 (1)

There is some data available, however, for certain schools.

In a Common Data Set from 2015-2016, for example, the University of Notre Dame specifies the following:

  • Standardized test scores are “important” to the admissions decision (but not “very important”)
  • The university does make use of SAT, ACT, or SAT Subject Test scores in admission decisions 
  • The university uses the SAT essay or ACT essay for advising purposes only (but does not require it)

Such data sets are not available for all U.S. colleges and universities.

However, it is safe to assume that if required, SAT or ACT scores can range from slightly to very important in informing the college admissions decision.

For more competitive, elite institutions–like the Ivy Leagues–these scores can be very important.


The SAT vs. the ACT

If the schools on your list do require standardized test scores, this doesn’t mean that you have to take the SAT. In fact, the SAT may not be the best test for you!

Your other option is the ACT. 

The two tests are very different, and as emphasized earlier, all colleges accept scores from the ACT or SAT equally.

Here’s a quick visual comparison of the two tests’ formats, content, timing, and breakdowns:

SAT Format ACT Format

Section 1

Evidence-Based Reading 

52 questions, 65 minutes

Section 1

English

75 questions, 45 minutes

Section 2

Writing & Language

44 questions, 35 minutes

Section 2

Math

60 questions, 60 minutes

Section 3

Math (No-Calculator)

20 questions, 25 minutes

Section 3

Reading

40 questions, 35 minutes

Section 4

Math (Calculator)

38 questions, 55 minutes

Section 4

Science

40 questions, 35 minutes

Section 5

Essay (Optional)

1 question, 50 minutes

Section 5

Essay (Optional)

1 question, 40 minutes

Half of a student’s SAT score (maximum score of 800), or two full sections, consists of Math. On the ACT, however, 25% of the composite score (maximum of 36) consists of Math. For this reason, we often recommend the SAT for students who are stronger in math.

Students who are more verbally-inclined may be at a greater advantage on the ACT.

The ACT may also benefit students who are strongest in the following content areas, given that the ACT tests these heavily:

  • Data Analysis and Figure Interpretation
  • Geometry
  • Algebra 1-2
  • Grammar and Punctuation

The SAT may benefit students who are strongest in these content areas, given that it tests these heavily:

  • Data Analysis and Problem-Solving
  • Algebra 2
  • Rhetorical Skills

Timing is also vastly different between these two tests. In general, students have less time on ACT sections than on SAT sections, especially when it comes to Reading and Science (35 minutes each).

If the ACT is the right test for you, then you don’t have to take the SAT! This decision can be tough, however, so visit our other thoughts on the SAT vs. ACT here.


Test-Optional Schools

Is the SAT optional?

For some students, it very well could be. There are now quite a few U.S. colleges and universities that do not require SAT scores, or standardized test scores for that matter.

This is not a comprehensive list, but here are some of the test optional schools out there:

Sarah Lawrence College Wake Forest University Bard College Furman University
Bowdoin College Bryn Mawr Smith College Skidmore College
Bates College St. Lawrence University University of Puget Sound Pitzer College
University of Chicago Wheaton College Mount Holyoke College Wittenburg University
Wesleyan University Hanover College Trinity College Hartwick College

Of course, just because a school is test-optional does not mean it should go on your list! These schools still require other standard components of the college application, including (but not limited to the following):

  • Essay(s)
  • Recommendation letters
  • Transcripts
  • Additional supplements (portfolios, essays, interview, etc.)

In some cases, these schools may place even greater emphasis on these components.

Some students may also need standardized test scores to qualify for certain scholarships, especially when it comes to athletic recruiting.


Test Flexible Schools

Lastly, some colleges and universities may require students to submit something in lieu of SAT or ACT scores.

They may allow students to submit SAT Subject Test scores, for example, instead of SAT scores. Or they may permit applicants to submit AP Exam scores in relevant subjects.

Still others may waive the SAT or ACT score requirement for applicants with a certain GPA.

Middlebury College is one such school that is test flexible. Here’s what it has to say about SAT and ACT scores:

Middlebury College requires applicants to submit standardized testing, but there is some flexibility in our testing policy. Students must submit either the SAT, the ACT, or three SAT Subject Tests in different academic disciplines (Math I and Math II, for example, do not qualify as two distinct Subject Tests). We do not require the SAT Essay or the ACT Writing tests.

Test-flexible schools are likely to have a wide range of policies and score alternatives.

For this reason, it’s essential to check out the school’s website to know exactly what you need to submit to be an eligible applicant.


Next Steps: Is the SAT Optional?

So, is the SAT optional?

Not necessarily. 

The majority of U.S. universities and colleges require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores. Many of these schools place great weight on these scores.

However, there are a number of test flexible and test-optional schools out there. It is also possible to take the ACT instead of the SAT if it aligns more closely with your strengths.

What do we recommend?

We still suggest that students build their college lists based on which schools are their “best fit”–not on whether or not these schools require SAT/ACT scores.

Students will find that when they choose this route, they will likely end up having to take the SAT or ACT. Still, this can position them for scholarship eligibility and, in some cases, a more competitive application!

It’s not too late to start your SAT or ACT test prep journey. We’re here to give you the professional assistance you require to maximize your score.

Book your free consultation with us today!


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay. She is a Master tutor at Princeton Tutoring.