What Does Test Optional Really Mean?

What Does Test Optional Really Mean?

What Does Test Optional Really Mean?

Motivation for Schools to go ‘Testing Optional’

SAT and ACT scores are highly correlated with income.

Considered today’s version of affirmative action, testing-optional policies are meant to level the playing field. 

Cornell University’s recent decision to temporarily suspend standardized testing requirements for admissions demonstrates this goal, citing “hardships and losses” as reasons why students might not take the SAT or ACT.

In other words, their testing-optional policy is not meant for everyone; it’s designed for underprivileged students. 

Depending on your socioeconomic status and race, the choice to opt out of testing may well benefit or hurt your chances of college admissions. Research has shown that without affirmative action students from some underrepresented minority groups would be admitted to colleges at much lower rates – a great step towards leveling the playing field! However, other students (especially Asian Americans) see drops in admissions rates when affirmative action is present.  

Deciding Whether To Take The SAT and/or ACT

So should you take the SAT or ACT?

This depends.

Think about the goals of your college application: to put your best foot forward and to show your interest and talent in academic and extracurricular pursuits.

In almost all cases, taking the SAT or ACT is inline with this goal. It shows that you are able to perform in stressful situations, over long durations. It illustrates that you have mastery over basic concepts expected of a college student. And, most importantly, it shows that you are willing to go above and beyond the minimum requirements to demonstrate your commitment to education.

So are the SAT and ACT really optional when applying for a “testing optional” school?

Sometimes, but not usually. 

What does this all mean specifically for you?


Testing Advice Based on Your Socioeconomic Status & Background

Testing Optional for Low-Income Students

If you are from a low-income family or have experienced hardships such that it would be unreasonable to expect strong performance on the SAT or ACT, the testing optional policy was designed to benefit you. 

The schools recognize how arduous it is for a student who, say, has to work after school to help his family, to allocate time and resources to SAT prep.

These are the students for whom the SAT and ACT tests are truly optional.

That is, the test can only help you.

Said differently, it is an option composed solely of upside.

This does not mean that you should ignore the SAT or ACT. Showing off your ability to perform well in a high-pressure testing environment “gives students an edge in admissions”.


The SAT and ACT offer waivers for low-income students so that you can take the test for free and give your already strong application an added boost. 

Testing Optional for Middle-Income Students

If you fall in a middle-income bracket or are from a background such that it would be understandable if you did not have strong performance on the SAT or ACT, you have the most flexibility when deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT.

student studying for sat test

However, if you fall into this category, there is the potential, and almost the expectation, that you could improve your admissions standing by demonstrating high standardized test scores. For example, a student with an average GPA but above average SAT or ACT scores will benefit from submitting their test scores with their college application.

If your academic qualifications are below the average at your college or university of choice, now’s the time to start devoting plenty of time to SAT or ACT test prep.

If you do not choose to take the SAT or ACT and you are from a middle-income family but do not have a compelling reason to have opted out of testing, then your application could suffer for it.

Testing Optional for Upper Income Students

Finally, what about the most privileged students? If your family falls into the highest income bracket, you will be at a disadvantage if you do not take the SAT or ACT – even if you are only applying to testing-optional schools.

Furthermore, if you take the SAT or ACT and perform poorly you will still be at a disadvantage.

For the most privileged students, the college admissions process is becoming increasingly competitive; you are expected to take the test and score well.

If you have the ability to afford private tutoring, it’s definitely the best bet for improving your scores and therefore your chances of admission.


Understand What “Testing Optional” Really Means 

Remember that just because a school touts a “testing optional” policy does not mean that they want all their applicants to forgo tests.

Certainly, for some students, it would be unreasonable to expect them to submit test scores– students who face challenges because of their socioeconomic statuses or who are first-generation students or non-native English speakers may all fall into this category.

Still, there are other students for whom the decision to opt-out of testing would harm the applicant.

Students who come from backgrounds that afford a number of opportunities, who are from wealthy districts, or who are being compared with a cohort who all chose to take the test are all examples of students for whom the testing-optional policy does not necessarily pertain.


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