What Test-Optional Really Means

By Jeff Selingo

To submit or not submit an ACT/SAT score? That is the question many college applicants are asking these days as more than 600 colleges and universities went “test-optional” during the pandemic—and most have extended those policies for the time being. 

It’s the question I get most often when speaking to teenagers and their parents about the college admissions process. The answer, however, is not as simple as a Yes or No. So, let’s break down the decision-making process for applicants.

First, “test-optional” doesn’t mean taking the ACT or SAT is optional; it means submitting a test score to colleges with such a policy isn’t required. Because students take the ACT/SAT—and need to prep for it—well before they know exactly where they’ll apply to college, plan to take the test and have a score so you can make the best decision about whether to submit it with an actual score in hand.

Second, once you have that score, don’t treat all test-optional schools on your list the same. Look closely at their middle 50 percent range for scores, which you can often find on their admissions website or the Common Data Set (which you can usually find by searching the web for the school and the term “Common Data Set”). If your score falls above that range or squarely in the middle of it, then you’re better off submitting it.  

Remember, a test score is another signal in an application full of them. The more positive signals you can send in your favor, the better your chances of get­ting in.  If you fall below the middle 50 percent, then be sure the rigor of your high-school courses and the grades you received in them can make up for having a score that is below their middle range. Also, remember that many schools are optional for using a score in their admission decision but they might use it for awarding merit aid. Be sure to ask if you need to submit a score to be considered for financial assistance.

Third, use your test score to balance your college list. Whether you submit a score or not, be sure not to have too many schools on your list where your score falls in bottom 25 percent or lower of enrolled students. That might be a sign that you have too many “reach” schools on your list. Add more schools where you’re above the range for GPA and test scores or solidly in the middle.

Finally, no single measure in the application is the reason students don’t get into their dream school. The problem with test-optional admissions is that most colleges that adopted the policy during the pandemic haven’t been transparent with would-be applicants about its impact on who ultimately gets accepted.

In general, in my research for writing an update to my book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, I found that about half of applications to selective colleges and universities over the past two application cycles arrived without test scores. But admissions deans said those applicants were usually less competitive across the board and were accepted at a lower rate. At Emory University, for example, nearly half of the applications for the Class of 2025 arrived without test scores. Overall, Emory admitted 13 percent of its applicants. But the admit rate for those with test scores (17 percent) was higher—about twice as high—as those without (8.6 percent). The same was true at Colgate (25 percent vs. 12 percent). At Georgia Tech, the admit rate for those with test scores was 22 percent compared with 10 percent without a score. The gap was much closer at Vanderbilt (7.2 percent vs. 6 percent).

Those are just a few of the top colleges that actually released statistics on who applied and who was accepted without test scores. Most admissions deans are cautious about saying too much, worried the overall numbers might paint a misleading picture for applicants because admissions rates often differ by major. So, students who apply to popular or competitive majors, such as business or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) without test scores tend to have even lower chances of getting admitted than students who apply to less popular or competitive majors.

The bottom line is that without a test score, admissions offices tend to fall back on historical data for students who, in previous years, enrolled from the same high school as the applicant. When colleges accumulate a significant number of graduates from a particular high school—say, ten students over the course of several years—they can track the grade-point averages and eventual degree completions associated with that school. The data indicate to those reviewing applications how grades in one high school translate into grades at the university. If you don’t want your admissions chances to rely on predecessors from your high school—or worse, be rejected because the college doesn’t know your high school well enough—then let a test score help tell your story. .

At Huntington Learning Center, every student can increase their SAT or ACT scores, making acceptance to their dream school a reality. Huntington students see on average a 2+ grade-level increase in math and reading, 229 point increase on the SAT and a 5.4 point increase on the ACT after three months of tutoring. Huntington is the tutoring and test prep leader and will prep your child for the SAT and ACT by developing the skills, confidence and motivation needed to succeed. Call us today at 1-800 CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child get into the college of their choice.

ABOUT Jeff Selingo

Jeff Selingo has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest book, Who Gets In & Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September 2020 and was named among the 100 Notable Books of the year by the New York Times. A regular contributor to The Atlantic, Jeff is a special advisor for innovation and professor of practice at Arizona State University. He also writes a bi-weekly newsletter on all things higher ed called Next, and co-hosts the podcast, FutureU. He lives in Washington, DC with his family.


Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1-800 CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit www.huntingtonfranchise.com.

Huntington Connects

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.