What ‘Test-Optional’ Means for You: Should You Still Take the SAT or ACT?

test optional should you still take the sat or act

November 19, 2020

Taking the SAT or ACT may still be worth your time. Read below to figure out whether taking advantage of test-optional policies will help or hurt.

The pandemic has redefined life as we know it: mask-wearing and staying 6 feet apart are the new norm. Likewise, the college admission process has changed. In particular, the limited availability and cancellations of the SAT and ACT have led numerous colleges to adopt test-optional policies. What was once deemed an anxiety-producing, yet critical rite of passage of applying to college–the SAT or ACT test–has become a choice. Yet, for many, taking the SAT or ACT is still worth their time despite what admissions offices and guidance counselors might say. Taking advantage of the test-optional policy can help or hurt. Keep reading below for an honest evaluation of test-optional policies.

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What does “test-optional” mean?

In a nutshell, “test-optional” means that it’s your choice to submit your SAT or ACT scores. They are not required for admission to a college or university. If a student chooses not to submit their scores, admissions will look at other parts of the application such as grades, GPA, essays, extracurriculars, course rigor, and letters of recommendation when deciding to admit a student. 

This is different from test blind schools like the University of California system. These schools won’t consider scores even if they’re submitted. Keep in mind that test-optional does not mean easier to get in. With test-optional policies, it is actually likely that the number of students applying to your college increases, making the percent accepted decrease. This lowers your chances of getting in.

Is the SAT or ACT still worth taking?

The short answer is it depends… and particularly on what test-optional schools you’re applying to. A superficial analysis would lead you to believe you don’t have to take the SAT or ACT this year, but a closer look reveals something a bit more nuanced. Consider the following questions when making a decision about taking the SAT or ACT.

How competitive are the schools you’re applying to?


If you’re applying to one of the top schools in the nation, you likely need to take the test. While the process of choosing which students to admit was already tough due to extremely low acceptance rates, with test optional policies, highly competitive schools have to decide who to accept with less information. Submitting your stellar scores gives admissions the full picture, providing added proof of how qualified you are, which can separate you from the pack. Top schools that have historically been test-optional are no exception: they have accepted students who submit SAT and ACT scores at pretty similar rates to students who don’t submit scores. That trend will probably prevail. Don’t believe us? Look at the data here. 

Are you a good test taker?

For some, tests are never a good indicator of their academic capabilities. Nerves, learning differences, or lack of test-taking stamina lead some students to consistently underperform on tests. If this is the case for you and your SAT or ACT practice test scores don’t reflect your academic abilities, you may be better off not submitting your scores. A good rule of thumb is to check the middle 50th percentile scores for the colleges you’re applying to. Ideally, your scores should fall at or above this range to be a competitive applicant. On the other hand, if your scores are a testimony to what you can do academically, submitting your scores is a good idea because it can boost your application. Bear in mind that with test prep, you won’t know this until after you’ve undergone a test prep curriculum.

How strong is your application?

Test-optional means that in the absence of test scores, the other pieces of your application will be scrutinized more. Were you involved in a lot of extracurricular activities and leadership roles? Is your junior year GPA strong? Did you take rigorous, high-level courses? Will your references have a lot of good things to say about you? Outside of scores, if your application is strong, a great score can boost your application even further. If your application lacks in some areas, a great score could help make up for it. Conversely, weaker scores can detract from an otherwise strong application.

Do you need a merit scholarship to afford college?

Many scholarships use SAT and ACT scores as an objective measure when awarding scholarships. Even though test-optional policies have been administered, SAT and ACT scores have long factored into the scholarship decision process and will likely continue to be. This does not mean that if you decide to not take the test, you won’t get a merit scholarship. Good scores are just a clear, easy indication of your scholarship worthiness.

How long has your school been test-optional?

Generally, colleges can be put into one of two camps: those who were test-optional before the pandemic and those who went test-optional because they had to. Colleges like Bowdoin College that have long been test-optional are likely to have a good grasp on how to evaluate a student’s application without test scores. (Note that even for Bowdoin College, the first test-optional school starting fifty years ago, only 31% of applicants chose not to submit SAT and ACT scores.) Newly test-optional colleges that have relied on the SAT or ACT as a key factor in admissions decisions are likely not as adept at determining the quality of a student’s application and may still heavily consider the test scores of students who choose to submit them.

Are you worried about getting COVID-19? 

For open test centers, measures such as mask-wearing and socially-distanced seating must be taken while administering the test. However, there is no fail-proof way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on test day. If you have high-risk family or friends that you’re worried about potentially spreading the coronavirus to, it may be best to stay at home and not take the test.

Important Note: Understand your schools’ admission requirements

Test-optional policies may vary for each college or university, so it’s important that you look at your school’s admissions website to understand what their test-optional policy entails. Some schools may have exemptions to the test-optional policy for specialized programs and NCAA athletes. Double-check the admissions requirements to make sure.

What does this mean for the future of the SAT and ACT? 

College Board and ACT, the organizations that run the SAT and ACT tests, respectively, have been around for over 60 years. Even with the pandemic’s disruption, it’s likely that SAT and ACT aren’t going anywhere. Colleges have based admissions on these tests for many years. However, the SAT and ACT tests will have to adapt to a world undergoing a pandemic. In official announcements, College Board and ACT have both hinted at creating an online version of their tests to be taken at home. Although a virtual option would make taking the tests much safer and easier to do, remote proctoring also brings up the issue of technology inequity.

Final Verdict

If you can take the test, you should. You always have the option to not submit your scores if you don’t perform as well as you’d hope. With new test-optional policies, the SAT and ACT are still an important factor in the college admissions process, but it’s up to you to decide whether or not to invest in studying for and taking the SAT or ACT. Good luck!

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