Test-Optional Colleges You Might Want to Consider

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

Three students walking in the campus.

Test-Optional Colleges You Might Want to Consider

Test-optional colleges are a new trend in higher education, where students are given the option to submit standardized test scores, such as the SAT or ACT, as part of their college application. Do any of the colleges you’re considering claim to be test-optional? What exactly does the phrase “test-optional” mean, and what does it mean to you?

What does it mean to be considered test-optional?

Each candidate has the option to submit their ACT or SAT scores if a school or program offers a test-optional admissions policy. To put it in another way, submitting your test results is not necessary for admission.

Normally, all candidates are covered by this policy. However, you should carefully read the policy’s specifics to find out whether the school encourages or mandates that particular sorts of applicants submit their test scores for admission.

For instance, while some colleges may not demand test scores for entrance, they nonetheless prefer or want test scores for eligibility for specific scholarships or admittance to an honors program.

A test-optional college’s admissions committee will take your test results into account if you want to send them there. (Schools with test-optionality are different from those with test-blind admissions, which fully disregard test results.)

Test-optional colleges allow you to choose whether your test results will enhance or harm your application, but a lack of test results won’t be used against you.

You should make sure the remainder of your application properly emphasizes your abilities if you decide not to submit your test results because the admissions committee will place more emphasis on the other parts of your application.

Additionally, college applicants who may not have done well on these exams or who may not have had the chance to take them may still be taken into consideration.

Students who may not have done well on standardized tests but who have excelled in other areas, such as their high school grades or extracurricular activities, may benefit from this. Colleges that don’t require standardized tests offer a more comprehensive approach to admissions and consider a student’s full academic and personal background.

unidentified student taking a test

Does test-optional put you at a disadvantage?

Does test-optional put you at a disadvantage? You can choose whether to submit your SAT or ACT scores if a school is test-optional. If you submit them, they will be considered part of your application; however, if you don’t, there will be no advantage over applicants who did.

How is that even possible? Test-optional colleges will give more weight to other application components (such as GPA, class rank, extracurriculars, etc.) to make up for the absence of test scores if you don’t submit them.

For example, a student whose test scores are sent to a school would have their application evaluated in, say, six categories, while a student whose scores are not sent would have their application evaluated in five categories, each of which would be worth slightly more than the first student’s six categories.

How can students best prepare for test-optional college applications?

Navigating the test-optional admissions process requires careful consideration and strategic planning. Instead of focusing heavily on test prep, students are advised to invest their time in enhancing other aspects of their applications, thereby showcasing a more holistic view of their capabilities and strengths. Here are the primary areas students should concentrate on:

Academic Performance: Demonstrating Consistent Excellence

With the absence of standardized test scores, the academic transcript becomes even more critical. Emphasize strong grades, rigorous coursework, and continuous improvement. Maintain a high GPA and challenge yourself with advanced courses like AP, IB, or dual enrollment.

Colleges look for students who have maximized their high school opportunities and have shown consistent academic growth over the years. It’s also essential to display mastery in subjects related to your intended major, showcasing your readiness for college-level coursework.

Extracurricular Activities: Showcasing Passion and Leadership

Extracurricular activities provide students with the opportunity to exhibit their passions, talents, and personal growth outside the academic sphere. They reveal a student’s ability to manage time, work in teams, take up leadership roles, and demonstrate commitment.

For test-optional applicants, it becomes essential to show consistent involvement in a few select activities that align with their interests, rather than sporadic participation in many. Whether it’s sports, music, clubs, volunteering, or internships, make sure these activities reflect your genuine interests and have relevance to your long-term goals.

Personal Essays: Telling Your Unique Story

Writing an essay under a tree.

Crafting thoughtful and well-written essays can provide admissions officers with insight into your personality, values, and potential. The personal essay is your chance to narrate your unique story, show your ability to reflect on experiences, and demonstrate your written communication skills.

In the absence of test scores, the essay becomes an even more critical component of your application. Use it to highlight your passions, challenges overcome, personal growth, and aspirations for the future. Be authentic, and make sure your voice shines through.

Letters of Recommendation: Endorsements from Mentors

Obtain strong letters of recommendation from teachers, coaches, or mentors who know you well and can speak to your abilities, character, and potential for success in college. Recommenders should be able to provide detailed examples of your intellectual curiosity, leadership, resilience, or other qualities that aren’t evident in other parts of your application.

Remember to choose individuals who can provide unique insights about you, rather than those who simply hold impressive titles.

Interview Preparation: Making a Personal Connection

If the colleges you’re applying to offer interviews, take advantage of this opportunity to make a personal connection with the admissions team. Prepare for interviews by practicing common questions, but also be ready to articulate your thoughts on your academic interests, personal achievements, and future goals.

Demonstrating self-awareness, intellectual curiosity, and genuine interest in the school can leave a lasting impression on interviewers. In a test-optional context, a successful interview can provide an additional boost to your application.

Building a Balanced College List

Finally, in the context of test-optional admissions, it’s essential to build a balanced college list that includes safety, match, and reach schools based on your overall profile, not just test scores. Research each college’s test-optional policies carefully to understand what they expect from their applicants.

By focusing on the aspects outlined above, you can enhance your chances of getting accepted into your dream college, with or without test scores.

How to decide what’s best for you?

There are two key considerations to think about if the college you are applying to does not require standardized testing. The first is whether you should take one of the required standardized college entrance exams, and the second is whether you should disclose your test results if you do.

Female student standing and thinking about something.

To test or not to test?

Taking the ACT or SAT can help you decide what to put in your application if doing so is a feasible and inexpensive choice, and you feel comfortable doing so.

If money is an issue, you can get free study guides and test-taking aids online, in your local library, or even through your high school.

Several states already cover the cost of exams for public school students, and in some places, some students may be able to get SAT or ACT fee waivers that cover the whole cost of registering for an exam.

Be sure to choose the option to view your test results before deciding whether or not to send them to universities when you sign up for the exam. This will also assist you in determining whether you want to repeat the exam to see if you can perform better.

Do you need to submit your scores or apply without them?

Should you apply to test-optional colleges with or without your test results? The choice is totally yours, and the optimal course of action varies depending on the circumstances.

In general, submitting your good exam scores can perhaps strengthen your application.

If you think your test results truly reflect your academic skills and potential and will improve or round out your application, you can decide to submit your ACT/SAT scores.

  • Your test scores are above average, but your GPA or another component of your application isn’t as great as you’d want.
  • You’re a candidate from an unapproved homeschooling program. (Test results can offer useful additional information because colleges have fewer ways to evaluate homeschooled students.)
  • Your test results, which are typically available online, are on par with or better than the average scores of the school’s most recent entering class.

You might choose to apply test-optional if:

  • You were unable to take the ACT or SAT for any reason.
  • Your scores fell short of your expectations.
  • Your scores did not adequately reflect your skills and potential.
  • You want to focus attention on the parts of your application that better showcase your skills and abilities, such as a strong GPA, demanding academic coursework, extracurricular involvement, and a thoughtful essay. (Perhaps you experienced high anxiety during the test or were unable to retake the test and improve your score.)

Why are schools switching to test-optional policies?

Why are schools adopting practices that do not require tests? Test-optional colleges were fairly uncommon only a few years ago. The tendency has significantly changed, though, and about 1,000 universities in the US now accept applications without tests. What led to this transformation, and why?

There are two main components. The first is that colleges don’t want applicants who otherwise have great applications and would be a benefit to their institution to be hindered by low test results.

To draw in a more diverse candidate pool, colleges don’t want prospective students to be hindered by events beyond their control.

Many schools are removing the standardized test requirement because research consistently shows that students from wealthier backgrounds have higher SAT and ACT scores.

By doing so, they hope to prevent further disadvantages for students from more disadvantaged backgrounds during the college admissions process.

This trend was accelerated by the pandemic. Many students found it difficult or impossible to take standardized tests after 2020, when many test sites closed. As a result, several institutions where exam results were previously mandatory made them optional.

The majority of these institutions don’t need students to take tests right now, but after witnessing how effectively it worked, a good number of them have made the change permanent.

Which US colleges are test-optional?

A woman taking an exam.

Which US colleges are test-optional? In the United States, there are many colleges and universities that have adopted test-optional policies. Some of the more well-known test-optional colleges include:

This list is not exhaustive, and many other colleges and universities have test-optional policies, so it’s always recommended to check with the colleges of interest for their specific policy.

Additionally, some colleges may have test-optional policies for certain programs or for certain groups of students. It’s also important to note that some colleges may still require standardized test scores for certain programs or for scholarship consideration, even if they are test-optional.

What do colleges look for in test-optional applicants?

With the absence of standardized test scores, admissions officers may focus more on other aspects of the application. Here’s what they might look for:

Holistic Review

Admissions committees often take a more holistic approach, looking at the entire application package to understand a student’s abilities, motivation, and fit with the institution. This includes assessing how a student’s unique experiences and background have shaped them and what they might contribute to the college community.

Test-optional policies allow admissions teams to focus on qualities that might not be evident from test scores alone.

High School Performance

Grades, course rigor, class rank, and teacher recommendations become essential indicators of a student’s academic potential. Admissions officers might delve into the details of a student’s high school transcript to understand how they challenged themselves in the context of what was available at their school.

Strong performance in honors or Advanced Placement (AP) courses can signal readiness for college-level work.

Personal Qualities and Potential

Through essays, interviews, and extracurricular activities, colleges assess a student’s character, leadership, creativity, and resilience. This includes evaluating how a student has grown from their experiences and how they have contributed to their communities.

Essays and interviews can provide insights into a student’s passions and how they approach problems, while extracurriculars may showcase talents and interests that don’t come through in the rest of the application.

Demonstrated Interest

Young woman smiling at the camera.

Showing genuine interest in a school, such as through campus visits, interviews, or thoughtful essays, can also be a positive factor in admissions decisions. Some colleges track demonstrated interest as a sign that a student is likely to attend if admitted, which can affect yield rates.

Attending information sessions, engaging with current students, and clearly articulating why a school is a strong fit in supplemental essays can all signal strong interest.

Portfolio or Project Submission

Some test-optional schools may also provide the opportunity for students to submit portfolios, projects, or other evidence of work that is particularly relevant to their intended field of study. This can include artistic portfolios, writing samples, research projects, or other tangible demonstrations of a student’s abilities and interests.

For students with strong skills in areas that don’t easily translate to test scores, this can be a crucial aspect of their application.


In the test-optional admissions process, the absence of standardized test scores doesn’t create a vacuum; it shifts the focus towards a more nuanced understanding of a student’s capabilities and potential. Students applying to test-optional schools should pay careful attention to every part of their application, ensuring that they present a full and compelling picture of who they are and what they can achieve. Emphasizing these areas can not only compensate for the lack of test scores but may even present opportunities to shine in ways that standardized tests don’t capture.

Choosing the right college is an important decision that can have a significant impact on your future. Whether you’re considering test-optional or traditional colleges, it’s important to take the time to research and explore your options.

The college selection process can be overwhelming and confusing, which is why AdmissionSight is here to work with you to understand your academic and personal goals and help you identify colleges that are the best fit for you.

We’ll make sure you have all the information you need to make an informed decision about where to attend college. Book your consultation today, and let’s start your college journey together!

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