Test-Optional College Admissions: To Submit or Not to Submit

While test scores have always been a source of debate in the admissions world, the pandemic has brought new attention to the concept of test-optional admissions. More colleges than ever have waived the standardized testing requirement this year, as taking these tests in person presented a safety risk for students. While not all institutions will remain test optional once health concerns have been resolved, now is a good time to consider one’s options when it comes to submitting scores.

Test optional means that a student can choose whether or not to submit test scores with the application, without penalty. Colleges typically advise that if a student feels well represented by their score, then they should submit it. Inevitably comes the question, how do I know if my score represents me academically?

It’s a good question without an easy answer. Common sense tells us that for a student who is at the top of her class, then a total SAT score of 900 (out of 1600) would not seem to be in line with her grades. This works in reverse as well. A student with a C– average and a 36 (the highest ACT score) is also looking at a disconnect between academic performance and test scores. But often it is not so straightforward.

Colleges usually report a mid-50% score range for applicants admitted in the previous year, which provides a general range (although they do admit students with scores above and below that range). When a student is evaluating whether or not to submit scores, he should start by looking at whether his scores fall within or near the top end of the middle 50% of accepted applicants. If so, he might lean toward submission.  

Beyond that, there are many more nuanced considerations that students at The St. Paul’s Schools should discuss with their college counselors. For instance, if a student is applying for a STEM-based major and her math score is lower than her English-based reading and writing score, she may want to choose test optional as her math score will be under increased scrutiny. If the same engineering hopeful were to have a high grade in AP Calculus, that might be another reason to withhold scores and have admissions weigh her grades more heavily.

Inevitably, a college’s decision to become test optional raises their overall mid-50% of test scores, since those with lower scores choose not to submit. This may cause potential applicants to feel out of their element, but it’s important that they keep the context of the data in mind and remember that the school still may be a great fit.

Ultimately, to understand the test optional concept, consider the following: You’re connecting the dots to create the picture on the back of the cereal box. But there’s a smudge, and you can’t see one dot! As you draw the line and a rabbit starts to take shape, do you need that last dot to show you how high the ear goes? Or has the rest of the picture given you enough information?

That’s what admissions officers do. If they don’t have the score, they turn to what they do have – the transcript, letters of recommendation, the student essay, the high school’s profile – and consider those in light of their institution’s needs. They are trying to find those students who will excel at their school. More often than not, they can still connect the dots to create a representative student image – with or without one missing dot.