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What is a Test-Optional College?

September 03, 2018

Knowing the difference between test-optional colleges and test-flexible colleges can help narrow down which schools you apply to—and which test scores you submit with your college application. 


Since the mid-2000s, universities started adopting test-optional admissions policies, meaning students don’t have to submit standardized test scores during the college application process. While mid-range universities were the trailblazers, more highly selective schools (such as the prestigious University of Chicago) are also removing SAT or ACT score requirements from admissions considerations. To date, more than 175 colleges and universities have adopted test-optional admissions policies.

According to the Washington Post, the main reason why universities and colleges have dropped the requirement is to become more accessible. Data shows that students from wealthier families, who can afford expensive tutors and classes, are more likely to score higher on the SAT and ACT. With test-optional admissions, a wider range of students may apply and enroll, compared to previous test-focused admission practices.  

How Do Test-Optional Schools Work?

Two terms are important in understanding test-optional admissions policies: test optional and test flexible.

Test optional means that the university does not require applicants to submit standardized test scores when applying for admission.

Test flexible gives students the option to to submit other standardized test scores for consideration, such as SAT Subject Tests or Advanced Placement Tests, in place of the ACT/SAT. Both terms are often (incorrectly) used interchangeably, and test flexible is often used as an umbrella term that includes test optional as well.  

There’s also test blind, often used to describe test-optional admissions policies. However, according to PrepScholar, Hampshire College is the only school that is test blind. At Hampshire College, students are not allowed to submit any standardized test scores at all.  

By allowing students to choose whether they submit their standardized test scores, in theory colleges are evaluating students based on their success given the resources they had access to.

However,  not all test-optional admissions policies are test optional for every applicant. The University of Chicago’s policy is only test optional for domestic students. At California State University (CSU) schools, SAT/ACT scores are required, but are only considered for in-state students with GPAs lower than 3.0 and for out of state students with GPAs lower than 3.61.

How Do I Know Which Colleges are Test Optional?

FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, is a nonprofit that aims to mitigate the misuse of standardized testing. They’ve compiled a database of universities that are test flexible and test optional, as well as a categorization system for whether they have a GPA requirement and if test-optional and test-flexible admission policies are available for out-of-state students.

Fairtest also compiles a list of schools that are test optional for international students as well, updated as of August 2016.

Should I Submit My Standardized Test Scores?

Some colleges that are test optional still require standardized test scores for merit-based scholarships or grants. If you’re planning to apply for merit-based financial aid, call the school’s financial aid office and ask whether standardized test scores are required for their merit scholarships.

For the most part, there is no special process a student has to go through when electing not to submit their scores at a test-optional school. At Bowdoin College, admissions officers holistically evaluate every piece of the student’s application they receive. If a student’s application contains test scores, they are evaluated; if not, it does not count against the student in any way. In the class of 2018, 30 percent of enrolled students chose not to report their standardized test scores.

According to College Transitions, by not submitting your test scores, colleges will place more emphasis on the other aspects of your application, like your transcript. If you feel confident that your application stands out without your standardized test scores, or if you feel that your test scores take away from the rest of your application, then consider not submitting them. Speak to a college guidance counselor to help determine your best course of action.

Kenia French is a rising junior at Tufts University majoring in International Relations and Environmental Studies. She became interested in education through writing an Investigative article on college affordability for the Tufts Daily.


Photo by biologycorner on Flickr.