Test Optional Colleges: Everything You Need to Know

Padya Paramita

Test Optional Colleges: Everything You Need to Know

If you’re not a good test taker, or just are not happy with your SAT or ACT scores, your guidance counselor might suggest that you consider applying to a few test optional colleges. This could throw you off - on top of everything you already have to finish with college applications, you now have to reconsider your entire school list? What are test optional colleges in the first place?

To guide you through some schools to consider, I will go over what a test optional college is, exactly which schools do not require standardized test scores, which schools are flexible with their testing policies, when you should or should not submit your scores to test optional colleges, and why these schools are test optional in the first place.

What Is a Test Optional College?

As more and more colleges place less emphasis on standardized testing, a lot of institutions are becoming test optional. Test optional colleges, as the name suggests, are schools where you are not required to submit your SAT or ACT scores. It is entirely up to you whether you believe the schools should see your standardized scores to determine whether you are a fit for them or not.

Currently there are many top liberal arts colleges and national universities which have changed their testing policies to allow students more agency in their application process. Schools such as New York University are more flexible with their testing policy. Hampshire College in Massachusetts on the other hand, is test-blind; any test score sent to the school will not be considered. Below is a list of liberal arts colleges and national universities within the top 100 which do not require standardized test scores at all.

Top Liberal Arts Schools Which Are Test Optional Colleges:

School Name US News Ranking
Bowdoin College 5
Smith College 11
Colby College 17
Wesleyan University 18
Bates College 22
Bryn Mawr College 27
Mount Holyoke College 30
College of the Holy Cross 35
Bucknell University 36
Franklin and Marshall College 36
Union College 39
Pitzer College 41
Skidmore College 41
Denison University 43
Whitman College 43
Connecticut College 46
Trinity College 46
Gettysburg College 49
Sewanee - University of the South 49
Agnes Scott college 51
Dickinson College 51
Furman University 51
Bard College 56
DePauw University 56
Lawrence University 56
St. Lawrence University 56
St. John's College 61
Kalamazoo College 65
Sarah Lawrence College 65
Beloit College 68
Hobart and William Smith College 68
Knox College 68
Lewis & Clark College 68
St. John's College 72
University of Puget Sound 72
Wofford College 72
Allegheny College 76
Transylvania University 76
Willamette University 76
Cornell College 81
Earlham College 81
Muhlenberg College 81
Juniata College 86
Wheaton College 90
Ursinus College 90
Southwestern University 90
Augustana College 95
Bennington College 95
College of the Atlantic 95
Ohio Wesleyan University 95
St. Anselm College 95
St. Mary's College 95

Top National Universities Which Are Test Optional Colleges:

School Name US News Ranking
University of Chicago 3
Lake Forest University 27
Worcester Polytechnic Institue 59
George Washington University 63
Clark University 66
American University 78
University of Delaware 89
University of Denver 96
University of San Francisco 96

As you can see, many top schools have decided to deemphasize the need for standardized tests in making their admissions decisions. There are more liberal arts institutions than national universities which are test optional colleges. National universities get a greater number of applications than liberal arts colleges. For example, Harvard received 43,330 applications for the Class of 2023, while Bowdoin received 9,332. Having standardized test scores as a factor for comparison helps Harvard admissions officers sort through the significantly larger pool. So, standardized tests are still required at Ivy League schools and other highly selective colleges such as Stanford and Duke.

What Are Test Flexible Schools?

Test flexible schools are those which may require test score submission, but the testing requirement can also be satisfied in other ways. The testing policy depends entirely on the school. This requirement can be fulfilled through taking other standardized tests, meeting a required GPA, holding a certain nationality, etc. Below is a list of top schools which are test flexible or test optional colleges when certain requirements are met.

School Name Testing Policy
Brandeis University Test optional only for citizens and permanent residents of U.S. and Canada.
Colorado College To satisfy the testing requirement, students have to submit any ONE of the following: SAT, ACT, Three exams (AP, IB, TOEFL) of your choice, which must include one quantitative test, one verbal/writing test, and a third test of your choice.
Drexel University To satisfy the testing requirement, students have to submit any ONE of the following: SAT, ACT, Two SAT Subject Test Scores, Two AP Exam Scores, Two IB Higher Level Exam Scores or IB Diploma, National Exam Results.
Hamilton College If students do not submit the SAT or the ACT, they may submit a combination of scores that can include AP exams, SAT Subject Tests, IB final exam results* or the TOEFL or IELTS. You can refer to Hamilton’s list of acceptable exams (https://www.hamilton.edu/admission/apply/requirements) that may be used.
New York University To satisfy the testing requirement, students have to submit any ONE of the following: SAT, ACT, Three SAT Subject Test Scores, Three AP Exam Scores, Three IB higher level exam scores or IB Diploma, Other international examinations that meets NYU’s International Qualification Tool (https://www.nyu.edu/content/nyu/en/admissions/undergraduate-admissions/how-to-apply/standardized-tests/national-examinations.html) requirement.
University of Rochester To satisfy the testing requirement, students have to submit any ONE of the following: SAT (no essay required), ACT (no essay required) Two or more results from, SAT subject tests, AP, IB, AS and A-Level Exams (UK and Commonwealth countries), Results from other national secondary school exams.
University of Texas - Austin Test optional for students attending public or private school in Texas who rank in the top 6% of their class on or before the application deadline, because they are automatically admitted.
Texas A&M Test optional for students attending public or private school in Texas who rank in the top 10% of their class on or before the application deadline, because they are automatically admitted.

Although many of the schools on this list do require testing, there is some flexibility with what test scores you choose to submit. If you’re taking AP or IB exams at your school anyway, you may wish to submit those scores instead of the SAT or ACT if you excel in them. If you did better on these exams or SAT subject tests, your application would look stronger with those scores rather than a low SAT or ACT score.

When You Should and Should Not Submit Your Scores To Test Optional Schools

The number of schools going test optional increases with each passing year. However, as you saw with the rankings, just because a school does not require standardized test scores doesn’t mean it’s not selective. Let’s look at the acceptance rates and median SAT scores for some of the top test optional colleges:

School Name Acceptance Rate Median SAT Score
University of Chicago 5.9% 1540
Bowdoin College 8.9% 1475
Colby College 9.5% 1430
Wesleyan University 15.8% 1510
Bates College 17.8% 1430

If you believe your test scores could get you ahead of the pack at these test optional colleges, you should definitely submit them to give you an extra edge. If you are not within their range, it’s best not to send the scores. Quantifiable data such as your SAT or ACT scores are easy to compare between students, and if you submit them, schools will take them into consideration, no matter what score you have. Submitting your scores could be beneficial to you if test optional colleges see that you have a higher score when compared to a similar candidate. If your GPA isn’t too impressive but your SAT or ACT scores are, definitely submit them. If you’ve got a high SAT or ACT score in just one sitting, that is also impressive and you should go ahead and submit it to test optional colleges.

The University of Chicago only joined the list of test optional colleges in 2018. The 2018-19 application cycle was their first as a test optional school, and interestingly enough, the Class of 2023 has the school’s highest SAT score of all time, 15 points above last year’s average. Therefore, if you believe that your score isn’t too great, and your GPA, extracurricular activities, and honors and achievements are good enough to make you stand out from the rest of the applicant pool, go ahead and skip submitting test scores.

Why Schools Go Test Optional: General Admissions Trends at Test Optional Colleges

There are many reasons why a school may go test optional. Letting applicants choose whether they wish to submit test scores allows the student to decide whether their test-taking ability is an essential part of their academic potential. As tests and test prep courses are expensive, making them optional can also be seen as an equalizer. Other schools may be encouraged by UChicago’s increased SAT average in 2019 (since going test optional), because having higher test scores helps colleges rise in the rankings.

According to the publication “Defining Access: How Test Optional Works,” which is based on a research study with 1 million students at 29 test optional colleges, standardized tests are more likely to favor white, male, wealthy students. Students who’ve had the opportunity to prepare for the SAT/ACT, pay for test prep, and sign up for multiple testing sessions typically earn higher scores. Not everyone can afford test prep services or plan to take the SAT or ACT multiple times. So, the testing system automatically puts people of lower socioeconomic backgrounds at a disadvantage, which statistically includes a disproportionate number of people of color and immigrants.

You can see that there are several reasons colleges go test optional, from being more accessible to students from diverse backgrounds, to anticipating increased SAT/ACT mean and median scores.

 

So, what should your next steps be? Make sure you check in with school websites on their current testing policies, as these could change annually. Even if you heavily consider a few test optional colleges as your top choices, it is unlikely that all the schools on your list are test optional. So, you should definitely plan to take the SAT or the ACT. If you get a high score, great! But if you’re not happy with your scores, you don’t have to submit them to the test optional colleges. You still get to keep your options open to apply to schools that require testing, and can make up for the low score with other aspects of your application.

Standardized tests don’t always accurately portray a picture of who you are as an applicant. If testing isn’t your strong suit, take advantage of schools which don’t require these scores. Do the appropriate research and who knows, one of the test optional colleges might just end up as the perfect school for you!

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