What Does Test Optional Mean in 2022? — How to Decide Whether to Submit Your Test Scores

Bonus Material: Check if you should submit your scores to colleges

Test-optional policies have been used by a small handful of schools since the mid-2000s, but in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, suddenly thousands of colleges and universities are now “test-optional,” at least temporarily.

What does test-optional mean? How can you use this information to prepare for college applications? Should you still submit your test scores?

We used our extensive expertise in test prep and the college admissions process to answer these questions.

If you want to make an informed decision about whether to submit your test scores to a specific college, download our free worksheet that will determine whether your test scores would help or hurt your application.

Download Free Test-Optional Guide

Jump to section:

What does test-optional mean?
Different types of test-optional policies
What is test-blind admissions and how is it different?
Which colleges are test-optional?
Why are colleges switching to test-optional?
Should you still take the SAT or ACT?
Should you submit your test scores to colleges?
Next steps


What Does Test-Optional Mean?

Since spring 2020, suddenly many more colleges and universities have adopted provisional “test-optional” policies. According to the US Department of Education, over 800 institutions shifted to a test-optional policy.

In a nutshell, “test-optional” means that students can submit their SAT or ACT test scores to colleges if they want, but it is not a requirement.

If a student does not submit any SAT or ACT scores, the admissions committee will simply weight all of the other elements of the student’s application more heavily.

A test-optional policy does not mean that colleges don’t care about test scores, or that they don’t want to see a student’s test scores.

Most students are still submitting test scores to colleges. In a recent survey, test-optional schools reported that close to 80% of their applicants choose to submit test scores. In our own research of top-tier schools, it’s clear that most of the students who were accepted did submit test scores.

Harvard University
Harvard University

For students who take the SAT or ACT, sending scores can strengthen their application. Colleges are receiving more applications than ever before, and strong test scores are one more way to stand out from the crowd.

Plus, even for test-optional schools, test scores might still be required for scholarships, financial aid, or honors programs or special study opportunities. 

However, if a student doesn’t submit test scores to a test-optional school, their application will no longer be automatically rejected. This is great news for students who had less access to testing previously, whether due to socioeconomic factors, personal health, extreme test anxiety, or other factors.

It’s important that students understand test-optional policies so that they can make informed decisions about whether to take the SAT or the ACT and whether to submit their test scores to colleges. Keep reading for more detailed information, and download our super-helpful worksheet to determine whether you should submit your test scores to a particular school.

Cornell University
Cornell University

Different Types of Test-Optional Policies

There are several different types of test-optional policies, and it’s important that students check the exact policy at the schools where they’re applying.

Option #1: Test-optional admissions for all applicants

At schools with test-optional admission for all applicants, students get to decide for themselves whether or not to include their SAT or ACT scores as part of their application.

Option #2: Test-optional admissions for some applicants

Some schools have created test-optional policies for students who meet other minimum requirements. For example, a school might make test-optional policies for students who have a certain minimum for their GPA or class rank. With this policy, a student with a higher GPA might not have to submit test scores, while a student with a lower GPA or class rank would still be required to submit their SAT or ACT scores.

In particular, students who are homeschooled or who attend a non-traditional or international school may be required to submit test scores, since their high school transcript may be harder to compare.

Option #3: Test-optional admissions, but scores required for scholarships or special programs

Many schools that have adopted test-optional policies still require students to submit test scores in order to be eligible for scholarships or financial aid. Test scores may also be required for admission to honors programs or certain majors. Always check the details with each school to which you’re applying to confirm.

Option #4: Test-flexible admissions

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, some schools had a “test-flexible” policy that meant that students could use other types of tests, not just the SAT and ACT. A test-flexible policy does not mean that testing is optional for that school. It just means that the school may accept AP tests, IB tests, or other school-administered placements tests. Some schools that have used this policy include NYU, Drexel University, and the University of Rochester.

Always check with each school to see their specific requirements, and remember that even if test scores aren’t required for admission, they may be required for scholarships and special programs.

These policies have been changing rapidly, so be careful where you get your information. It’s always best to consult the college’s website directly.


What is Test-Blind Admissions and How Is It Different?

Also sometimes called “test-free,” “test-blind” admissions policies are completely different.

A “test-blind” admissions policy means that the college will not look at your test scores. It’s not even possible to submit scores, and students who try to sneak them into applications may even be penalized for not following directions.

Only a small handful of schools are test-blind.

Most notably, all of the University of California (UC) campuses are now test-blind. That means that it is not possible for students to submit test scores to schools like Berkeley, UCLA, or UC Santa Barbara.

University of California, Berkeley
UC Berkeley

A few other test-blind schools are Reed College, Pitzer College, Washington State University, the Catholic University of America, and the College of Staten Island CUNY.

However, these policies are subject to change at any point. Many colleges are doing a trial of test-blind admissions, and may switch back to test-required or test-optional in the future. For this reason, we still recommend that students take the SAT or ACT to keep their options open.


Which Colleges Are Test-Optional?

The list of colleges and universities that don’t require the SAT or ACT to apply is changing all the time, since for most schools these policies were intended to be a temporary response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

For example, MIT briefly had a test-optional policy for students entering as freshmen in fall 2021 and 2022. However, they have changed their policy and have returned to requiring test scores — students in the class of 2023 or 2024 applying to MIT now do need to submit test scores to be considered for admission.

MIT
MIT

Other schools that do require test scores (and are not test-optional) are Georgetown, the University of Florida, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Tennessee (Knoxville), Florida State University, and the US Naval Academy, AIr Force Academy, and Military Academy at West Point. 

Always check directly with the college to confirm their policy, either by going to the college website or calling their admissions office. Your high school counselor can also help you to confirm this information.


Why Are Colleges Switching to Test-Optional?

At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, colleges and universities switched to test-optional policies because many SAT and ACT testing centers were closed and students had literally no way to access testing in time to submit with their applications. For a few months, everything was a bit of a mess, as colleges had to scramble to adapt to the realities of the pandemic.

However, the idea of test-optional has been around for at least two decades, as part of a drive to make it easier for most students to apply to college. For the most part, by fall 2022 testing logistics are back to normal, but colleges are experimenting with test-optional as a way to make college more accessible (Washington Post). The pandemic just accelerated something that some schools were already considering trying.

Princeton University
Princeton University

Colleges don’t want for students to be held back by circumstances beyond their control. With test-optional policies, students who don’t have access to taking the test (because of financial means, geography, disabilities, or any other reason beyond their control) can still apply and be judged on the basis of their GPA, course rigor, essays, and other accomplishments. 

Some studies have suggested that test-optional policies have led to an increase in the representation of students who are first-generation, part of underrepresented minority groups (URM) in higher education, or Pell-grant recipients (lower-income). 

**Remember that financial means shouldn’t hinder students from taking the SAT or the ACT, since both tests have fee waiver programs and access to no-cost test prep materials for qualifying students. Download our free SAT Guide and ACT Guide for more information.

However, remember that these test-optional policies are temporary, and some schools have already switched back to requiring test scores for admissions. Always check the current requirements at each school to which you are applying by consulting the college’s website or calling their admissions office directly.


Should you still take the SAT or ACT?

In short, yes. If you are able to take the SAT or ACT, you should still take the test. To the best of your abilities, you should still prepare for the test and take it seriously.

Reasons to Still Take the SAT and/or ACT

There are many reasons why it’s a good idea to still take the SAT and ACT:

  • You’ll keep your options open. Not all colleges are test-optional, and policies continue to change. You don’t want for a lack of test scores to hold you back from applying to a school that would be a great fit.
  • Strong test scores will always help your application. If the other aspects of your application (GPA, course rigor, essays, extracurriculars, teacher recommendations) are also strong, then high test scores will help to confirm that information.
  • If you have a weak spot in your application, strong test scores can help to offset that. A high test score will signal to admissions officers that the student had potential and perhaps just had a rough time for a bit (could be due to a family issue, illness, setback with friends, focus on a sport, etc). Good scores will mean that admissions officers will look a little more closely at your application for clues to your full story. 
  • In particular, high test scores can balance a lower GPA. Strong scores on the SAT or ACT can prove to admissions officers that a student has the potential to succeed in college classes, because they’re another indication of your academic abilities.
  • At some schools, high test scores can mean automatic admission. Some schools even waive requirements (like essays) for students with high test scores.
  • Good test scores may win you scholarship money. (In fact, they’re often a requirement for eligibility for scholarships or financial aid, even athletic scholarships.) That could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • Strong SAT or ACT scores may be requirements for admission to honors programs or other special academic programs, even at test-optional schools.
  • If your’re homeschooled or in another less-traditional academic setting, test scores can be especially useful to prove your academic abilities to admissions officers. Students who are in an unaccredited homeschool program should absolutely take the SAT or ACT.
student

Should you take both the SAT and the ACT?

Many students take both the SAT and the ACT, especially ambitious students who are applying to highly selective schools. 

Based on the available data, we know that at least 20% of the freshman class at most Ivy League and similarly competitive schools submitted scores for both the SAT and the ACT.

There’s no competitive advantage to submitting scores for both tests.

However, many students do better on one test than on the other. It can be a good idea to try both tests and see which one plays to your strengths. Fortunately, there are a lot of similarities between the two tests, and so it’s possible to prepare for both the SAT and the ACT at the same time. An experienced tutor can be especially helpful with this. 

Download our handy guide for deciding between the SAT and the ACT and determining which test plays to your strengths!

Once you have your scores, always submit the test with the higher score to colleges. Use our guide to convert your scores with the SAT-ACT Concordance and determine which score is higher.

student thinking

Will it be counted against you if you don’t submit test scores?

In theory, no. Schools with test-optional policies will just weight the other elements of your application more if you do not submit SAT or ACT scores.

For the class of 2021, who experienced the Covid-19 lockdowns of spring 2020 in their junior year (the peak time for students to take the tests), this was definitely true. Many students had no way of taking the test because testing centers were closed. 

However, by the end of 2022, most testing is back to normal. Most students can access test-prep and testing just like before the Covid-19 pandemic.

In this context, the test-optional policies work a little differently.

While admissions officers have not made any explicit statements, we use logic and our decades of experience in college prep to read between the lines.

When colleges explain why they continue to use test-optional policies, they now only speak about increasing access to college for students who are lower-income, first-generation, or a member of underrepresented minority groups (URMs) in higher education.

In other words, privileged students who have always had relatively easy access to testing and test-prep are not the target audience for test-optional policies

student

We can guess that college admissions officers are more likely to assume that if students who seem to come from relative privilege don’t submit SAT or ACT scores, they either (a) are unwilling to prep for the tests or (b) didn’t do well on the tests.

Some college admissions officers have reportedly said that they worry that a high GPA but no test scores can indicate grade inflation, which studies show has increased rapidly in recent years. In theory, the SAT and ACT “offer an independent snapshot of college readiness and academic achievement,” and “without admissions tests that put grades in context, colleges can have a harder time keeping track of which schools hand out high grades and play transcript games in order to help their students get into college” (Forbes).

In that context, admissions officers are likely to assume that no test scores means low test scores for students who would have had access to test-taking.

It’s a little like “optional” supplemental essays at selective colleges: we recommend writing them if you want to look like a serious applicant.

However, if you are clearly a student with obvious significant barriers to testing and higher education — lower-income, first-generation, a member of underrepresented minority groups (URMs) in higher education, or with particular health or family challenges — then admissions officers will likely interpret a lack of scores differently.

So while we may not even know exactly how every admissions office is using this policy, the safest thing is to do your best to prepare for the SAT or ACT and earn your best possible score on the test.


Should You Submit Your Test Scores to Colleges?

Since 2020, we get this question from students every week. Should they submit their test scores to colleges? Is their SAT or ACT good enough for _______ school?

Fortunately, we have some great tools for determining if a given SAT or ACT score is competitive at each individual college.

You should submit your test scores if:

  • Your test scores are “competitive” at that school
  • You are an applicant from a homeschool program or another non-traditional academic program (especially if your program is unaccredited)
  • You need test scores to be eligible for a scholarship, financial aid, or honors program at that school

You should consider not submitting your test scores if:

  • Your test scores are low for that school

That’s it.

But how do you know if your test scores are competitive at a given college?

Fortunately, we have a lot of data that allows us to answer that question with confidence. Most schools publish something called the Common Data Set, a long document with lots of data. One component of that data is test scores for their incoming freshman class.

A competitive test score is one that is above the bottom 25% at that college. We typically look at the “middle 50,”  which is the 25th to 75th percentile at that school. 

(Percentile means the percentage of students compared to whom your score would be higher. So 15th percentile means that your score would be higher than that of 15% of other students, but that 85% of students would have a higher score than yours. Or 80th percentile means that you scored higher than 80% of other students. We use percentiles to talk about where an individual student falls within a given distribution.)

If your score is below the 25th percentile at that school, that would be a “weak” score at that school. Only a quarter of students at that school would have lower scores, and you can assume that those students have exceptional grades, extracurricular activities, essays, or other special qualities.

Duke University
Duke University

Remember, context is everything! A 1400 SAT is a low score at Princeton but a high score at the University of Connecticut. It’s important to check the data for each school individually.

For example, any SAT score above 1550 or a 35 or 36 on the ACT is a high score anywhere.

A 1520 SAT or 34 ACT is competitive (above the bottom 25%) at Ivy-League schools and other top-tier colleges like Stanford, MIT, and Duke.

A 1450 SAT or a 33 ACT is competitive at Williams, Northwestern, Pomona, Cornell (the least-competitive Ivy), and Notre Dame.

A 1300 SAT or 28 ACT is competitive at UCLA, Bryn Mawr, University of Florida, and UNC Chapel Hill.

A 1150 SAT or 23 ACT is competitive at the University of Minnesota, University of Iowa, University of Arizona, and Michigan State.

So if you’re deciding whether to submit your scores to a given school, you need to check the data for that school and see if your scores would be competitive. If they are, go for it! If they’re not, don’t include them — but know that unless you have another aspect of your application that’s outstanding, this is going to be a “reach” school for you.

Download our free worksheet to go step by step through the process of determining if you should submit your test scores.

If you don’t submit test scores, then every other aspect of your application will be even more important. In particular, make sure that your college essays are extra strong.


Next Steps

Now that you know it’s a good idea to take the tests seriously and take either the SAT or ACT (or both!), what’s next?

There are many excellent resources to prepare for the tests, some of which are free. A great test prep course or tutor can help students to make the most of their practice time.

student

We’re proud of providing the highest-quality SAT and ACT tutoring services with amazing Ivy-League tutors at the most competitive prices. Our students routinely see big increases in their test scores after practice with our experienced tutors. Sign up for one-on-one tutoring for expert guidance on how to prepare for the tests the most efficiently and effectively.

If you’ve already taken the SAT or ACT and you’re deciding whether to submit your test scores to colleges, it’s important to make an informed decision. Download our free quick guide to answer this question with our data-driven method.

Download Free Test-Optional Guide

Bonus Material: Decide if you should submit your scores


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Bonus Material: Decide if you should submit your scores


Emily

Emily graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University and holds an MA from the University of Notre Dame. She was a National Merit Scholar and has won numerous academic prizes and fellowships. A veteran of the publishing industry, she has helped professors at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton revise their books and articles. Over the last decade, Emily has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.