Test Optional

Test Optional: What You Really Need To Know

Due to the recent events of 2020, many test sites were closed, test dates had to be cancelled due to risk, and many colleges adopted a “test-optional” policy to accommodate students who did not have the opportunity to take the test.  This became a double-edged sword.

Before the pandemic, there were several colleges with a “Test Optional” provision if the student met other criteria – usually GPA or class rank – and were granted “automatic” admission.  The California State system offered automatic admission for a 3.0 GPA and colleges like Texas A&M and UT Austin provided automatic admission for students in the top 10% of their class for in-state students.

Colleges had to adopt a test optional policy because they could not penalize applicants who legitimately could not take the test, and, because colleges are in business, they had to have “butts in seats” (even if seats were virtual) to stay in business.

A False Positive

To many students who, in a “normal” year, probably would not have scored well enough to gain admissions to competitive colleges, this was seen as a huge opportunity. 

Many thought – incorrectly – that “Test Optional” would mean colleges would lower standards, thus many students, who would not normally apply to competitive colleges, applied on thinking they had a better chance to be admitted.  Although this may have worked for a few, the vast majority of students who applied this way got were rejected.

This also played well for competitive colleges because many had a record-high number of applicants for the 2021 entering class and…, had record low admission rates.  The latter is a simple math ratio.  Colleges have a relatively fixed number of admission slots.  More applicants mean the numerator gets bigger as the denominator remains constant, so the percentage of admissions goes down.  Top colleges liked this because it provides bragging rights on selectivity which colleges like to see posted compared to other colleges.


But there is more to this on an individual student basis.  Let’s play a scenario:

A 4.0 student applies to Top University X.  The GPA, essays, recommendations, resume, activities, etc., all point to a promising applicant.  However, the student opts to not submit test scores.  The admissions office cannot conclude for a fact that the student could not legitimately take the test.  The student assumes the college will assess the student on merits without test scores. 

The admissions office applies what I call a “Grit Factor” that can be used to infer the validity of not submitting test score.  The student assumes (and hopes) the college will think the student didn’t have the opportunity to test.  The other edge of the sword comes when the admissions office checks the students school code to see how many seniors took the test and look at the applications of other students from the same school to see if scores were included. 

If there were a significant number of students from that school who took the test, it becomes easier to conclude:

1 – The student actually took the test but did not get a competitive score.  The student applied with “test optional” to attempt to mitigate the lower score.

2 – The student didn’t attempt the test, thinking it was unnecessary, i.e., blew it off.

The lack of a test score can actually make the student look worse, lowering the student’s “Grit Factor.”  Some admissions people might see this as a character issue either hiding the truth about their score if they took the test and did not submit the score or indicating the student did not have the “Grit” to take the test given many of their classmates managed to take it.

Double-Edged Sword

The sword cuts both ways – providing opportunities for students who legitimately could not take the test and also providing opportunities for students who don’t want to release their lower scores in order to gain top admissions. From my 30+ years of experience when it comes to college admissions, you can’t outsmart these schools. They know the same tricks the students do and will make sure to dig up any data they can to make sure they are admitting the right students for their university. 

We can pretty much expect most colleges will continue “Test Optional” policies through the next few years.  Also, many colleges may drop a testing requirement altogether.  Indeed, the University of California and California State systems have dropped testing requirements and can’t even consider test scores by court order.

Scholarships & Test Optional

In addition, many colleges that offer merit scholarships have adopted a “two-tiered” criteria for scholarships – one with test scores and one without.

Case in point:

The University of Kentucky’s Presidential Scholarship provides a full-tuition scholarship and requires a 3.50 GPA and a 33 ACT/1450 SAT.  Without a test score, the criteria is a 4.0.  So a rising junior who had one “B” who is considering Kentucky would be better taking the test.  Students can always raise their test scores.  They can’t erase a “B.” The best piece of advice if you are struggling to raise your test scores is to get in a formal SAT/ACT course. If you would like access to our free course, please click here. Also, check out our article that will teach you some tips and tricks on raising your test scores fast!


The best advice is to take the test, take it early, take it often to raise your score.  “Test Optional” may not be the best way to approach competitive admissions.

Dr. Beasley

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