College essay resources

Create your Prompt account and get free resources to help you write strong college essays.

Create account

All about test-optional (and when you should submit scores) | 2021-22

Writing Techniques
Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller
read

Over 60% of American colleges won’t require test scores for applicants in 2021-22. That’s over 1,400 of 2,330 institutions. This includes almost all selective colleges, including the Ivies, Stanford, and MIT. 

But how optional is test-optional? How should you think about the decision to submit SAT and ACT scores or not? Let’s take a deep dive into the data and get into admissions officers’ minds to answer this question. (Spoiler: It varies a lot by school — further research may be required.)

Before we begin, a dollop of perspective: a strong application doesn’t depend on any one factor. Not even test scores. Rather, it depends on proving you’ve got what it takes to succeed in college and beyond.

What is “test-optional”?;The data says: Test-optional schools still mostly reward test scores;Bottom line: Research your schools before applying without scores;The data says: The benefits of test prep are modest;The data says: Schools use scores as one (of many) ways to predict college success;Bottom line: Be holistic - submit an application that shows you’ll succeed in college;The data says: Colleges use test scores when applicants’ academic records are confusing;Bottom line: Use test scores if you need to answer questions about your academic ability;The data says: Selective colleges are enjoying increased applicant pools from test-optional;The data says: Selective colleges are enjoying more diverse applicant pools, but with a dark lining;The data says: College rankings count (reported) test scores, First Generation graduation rates;Bottom line: most applicants still need great test scores, but you should know if that’s not you
What is “test-optional”?;The data says: Test-optional schools still mostly reward test scores;Bottom line: Research your schools before applying without scores;The data says: The benefits of test prep are modest;The data says: Schools use scores as one (of many) ways to predict college success;Bottom line: Be holistic - submit an application that shows you’ll succeed in college;The data says: Colleges use test scores when applicants’ academic records are confusing;Bottom line: Use test scores if you need to answer questions about your academic ability;The data says: Selective colleges are enjoying increased applicant pools from test-optional;The data says: Selective colleges are enjoying more diverse applicant pools, but with a dark lining;The data says: College rankings count (reported) test scores, First Generation graduation rates;Bottom line: most applicants still need great test scores, but you should know if that’s not you

    What is “test-optional”?

    Test-optional means colleges don’t require applicants to submit test scores — they do allow applicants to submit test scores, and will take them into consideration as one factor in their review if they have them. 

    Test-optional is not test-blind. Test-blind means that the colleges doesn’t look at test scores at all as a factor in determining admission. The most prominent test-blind schools include the University of California system, which will be test-blind for Fall 2021 admissions, and CalTech for Fall 2021 and 2022. 

    This article will focus on test-optional, not test-blind, since test-optional is far more prevalent (at least for the moment) and places the question of whether to submit scores on you.

    The data says: Test-optional schools still mostly reward test scores

    Before 2020, the most selective school to go test-optional was UChicago, in 2018. Does UChicago favor applicants who submit test scores?

    UChicago hasn’t released much data, so we don’t know everything. What they’ve said is that, pre-pandemic, about 85-90% of applicants submitted scores — and that 85-90% of admits also submitted scores. In other words, UChicago has said it doesn’t penalize withholding scores; nevertheless, applicants overwhelmingly submitted them.

    UChicago had time to think through its policy. What about the thousands of schools that suddenly went “pandemic test-optional”? Are they as relatively neutral to test submission as UChicago? 

    The answer seems to be, “No, but it varies.” (Few schools have released test-related admissions data, so we’re making guesses based on tiny samples.)

    Higher ed expert Jeffrey Selingo says he spoke with a dozen selective colleges after their 2021 offers went out and “in every case” students with scores got accepted at higher rates than those without; in some cases, the rate was twice as high. 

    Selingo has concrete numbers for just four schools:


    It’s interesting to contrast the chart above to the few admission rates that we found (by digging around the internet). In 2021, applicants who submitted scores made up 

    • 60% of admits at Colgate,
    • 61% at Vanderbilt — note: the Selingo data above says Vanderbilt gave submitters just a 1.2x preference
    • 66% at Notre Dame, 
    • 69% at Emory — note: the Selingo data above says Emory gave submitters a full 2x preference
    • 75% at UPenn, and 
    • a whopping 93% at Georgetown.* 

    On the other hand, we found 2 schools that admitted more students without scores than with. Applicants who submitted scores made up only 

    • 29% of admits at Boston University, and
    • 44% at Tufts.

    * Note on Georgetown: They’re a bit of an outlier in this comparison — they expressly asked applicants to submit scores unless they could prove that exceptional circumstances prevented them from taking the test. 

    (As a side note, it’s possible that students who didn’t submit test scores also tended to be less strong academically. This would explain why they tended to get admitted at slightly lower rates. There’s no way to test this theory at the moment, but it could be a part of the answer.)

    Bottom line: Research your schools before applying without scores 

    Applying to BU or Vanderbilt without scores seems like it would be a lot less risky than applying to Emory or UPenn without them. While the data won’t always tell you what to do test-wise, it will at least help inform your decision.

    To research, Google “[School name] + 2021 + admissions” and view the “News” results. The college newspaper almost always has a story on each year’s admissions. It will have the test stats if available — sadly, they’re usually not.

    The data says: The benefits of test prep are modest 

    We started by trying to see what colleges are doing. What we found was pretty unsatisfactory: limited data, contradictory results, and little clarity in how to parse it all. 

    So, before we continue looking at schools in this new test-optional world, let’s spend a minute on what you can do (ie: what you can control).

    First, despite what test prep classes may claim, research has found that the benefits of test prep are real, but modest. Moreover, there are many free or low-cost test prep methods that seem to work just as well as expensive tutors. The greatest benefit to your test score comes from getting used to the kinds of questions they ask, and refreshing the skills you need to answer them — ie: a little practice goes a long way (see this report, scroll to the bottom of the article). 

    What this means is do take the test seriously and prep enough that you know what to expect. It also means don’t go chasing diminishing returns. Because ...

    … Second, colleges care about many factors besides test scores. In particular, strong essays can 10x your chances of getting in at selective colleges. (Activity lists count for a lot, too.)  There’s a lot in this process you can still control, even if your test scores aren’t stellar. 

    That being said, one pre-COVID survey found that a 20% increase in math and 10% increase in verbal scores significantly impacted a student’s likelihood of admission. However, another study found the greatest variation in test scores for accepted students came at the most selective and least selective schools. As always, do your research because schools vary more than you might think.

    Nevertheless, as you’re deciding where to spend your time, energy and maybe money, make sure you understand where you can still realize big gains (your last set of grades and your essays, activities lists, and recommendations), and where you might be wasting precious resources (going after an unrealistic SAT score jump after you’ve give the test your very best shot). 

    For example, Cornell says its test-optional policy pushed it to develop a new review system — more focused on class rigor and performance. In addition, “The essay, the résumé and the letters assume a smidgen more importance than they would have in a system in which the test score just sort of sat there like a big object on the review process,” according to Cornell’s head of admissions (emphasis added). 

    The data says: Schools use scores as one (of many) ways to predict college success 

    “Students and parents have always been in love with the tests more than college admissions offices,” according to Selingo. After spending a year in the admissions departments of three selective colleges, he says grades and course rigor mean more to admissions officers, who believe those metrics best predict undergraduate success.

    Still, as the test-optional data above revealed, it’s clear that schools have very different ideas about how to value test scores. “At some [colleges], standardized tests are important predictors of students’ academic success, while at others, they add little compared to high school grades,” as the National Association for College Admissions Consulting puts it. 

    Admissions departments are trying to predict college success. Colleges actually track how their classes do based on their admissions criteria. Test scores are probably more predictive at some schools and less in others.

    The research on test scores and college success can go either way. One 2018 study of test-optional schools found that while students admitted without test scores had “modestly lower” first-year GPAs, they ended up graduating at the same rate or “marginally higher” than students who did submit scores. In addition, a recent study found that GPAs were 5x more predictive than ACT scores, but its methods have been questioned

    On the other hand, other studies have found that test scores do predict college success — and particularly in STEM fields.

    MIT’s application page bolsters the case that scores matter more at some schools: “Despite the limitations of these exams, our research shows that considering performance on the SAT/ACT substantially improves our ability to predict subsequent student success at MIT” (emphasis added). 

    According to Selingo, “One public university dean I talked with showed me admissions rates that were remarkably similar between those with and without test scores, except in STEM and business, where students with test scores got in at much higher rates” (emphasis added).

    Ultimately, schools will be the first to know how test-optional policies affect their particular application pools. Hopefully, the rest of us will be able to gain access to that data through disclosure or reporting (or maybe a lawsuit). 

    Bottom line: Be holistic - submit an application that shows you’ll succeed in college

    So, if schools are looking to predict college success from your application, it’s best to focus on that as you go through the application process. Stressing about any one factor is besides the point. 

    We’ll quote a line from UChicago’s admissions page here:

    “We encourage students to take standardized tests, like the SAT and ACT, and to share your scores with us if you think that they are reflective of your ability and potential” (emphasis added).

    In other words, think about your entire application. Some completely made-up examples:

    • You have a solid academic record but learning or other disabilities that tank your test scores — Don’t kill yourself retaking them; spend your energy doing other exciting and productive things. 
    • Your math scores are abysmal, but you published a novel at 16 — Maybe you don’t have to stress the test. 
    • You eked out a solid academic record despite both parents losing their jobs during the pandemic and your taking on a job to support your family — Leave the tests alone if they’re a big source of stress; you don’t need more of that in your life right now.
    • You hate even thinking about the SAT! Your tests so far have been disasters! You’re an interesting person and a good student, but, to repeat, you hate these tests that have done nothing good for you — You know what? Maybe it’s just not for you. 
    • You just don’t love the SAT, and you’d love to not have to take it — Hmm … You should probably bite the bullet, do your practice tests, and give it your very best shot. If despite your best efforts your score is no good, then you can leave it off. But it’s too soon to let yourself off the hook. 

    The data says: Colleges use test scores when applicants’ academic records are confusing

    Selingo points to one circumstance when colleges find test scores critical: “Where test scores mattered the most is when admissions officers had questions about an applicant’s courses (not rigorous enough) or grades (not consistent) and might use the test score as a check.”

    In addition, switching high schools can make it difficult for schools to assess academic qualifications. It’s hard for schools to know if an increase in grades means you got more serious or the school got easier (same with a grade decrease). Test scores in situations like this can help you make the case for your academic bona fides. 

    Bottom line: Use test scores if you need to answer questions about your academic ability

    Take a critical eye to your academic record. (You should probably get your college counselor or admissions coach to help you assess it.) What questions will admissions teams ask about it? 

    Will strong test scores help answer those questions the way you’d prefer? If not, are there other ways you can bolster the case that you have what it takes to do well in school? For example, can you take some more rigorous classes or create some other tangible proof of your intellectual prowess?

    The data says: Selective colleges are enjoying increased applicant pools from test-optional

    College test-optional policies have increased the number of applicants at selective institutions — while applications are down at less selective ones. Here are some places where applications have gone up:

    • Colgate — by 102%(!!)
    • MIT — 66%(!)
    • Harvard — 43%
    • University of Georgia — 40%
    • Tufts — 35%
    • UPenn — 33%
    • Rice — 26%
    • University of California — 18% (across its 9 campuses)
    • University of Virginia — 17%

    On the other hand, less exclusive schools have seen a drop in applications. The country’s largest public college system, the State University of New York, saw a 14% decrease. Many other public and private schools have experienced the same. 

    The data says: Selective colleges are enjoying more diverse applicant pools, but with a dark lining

    Selective schools are touting the increased diversity of their admitted classes under the test-optional policy. It’s hard to compare these numbers because schools release different statistics, but the trend seems robust. For example: 

    • Harvard has admitted 6% more students of color.
    • Tufts also admitted 6% more students of color.
    • U-Mass Amherst admitted 27% more underrepresented minorities and 12% more 1st generation students.
    • The University of California, Berkeley had 38% more applications from Black, Latino, and Native American students.
    • New York University saw 22% more applications from Black and Latino students.

    Cornell’s admissions chief said that, despite significant efforts to increase its applicant diversity, nothing has come close to waving tests. “We didn’t see an expansion of wealthy kids saying, ‘Well, I’ll apply to Cornell.’ That was already happening,” he said.

    At the same time, some low-income students have fared much worse in the pandemic. 

    “We saw the largest declines by far among students from low-income high schools, high-minority high schools, ... who ordinarily would have gone to community colleges this fall, and who just vanished,” according to a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center official. 

    Some argue that tests are a barrier to equity in higher education. The nonprofit FairTest says that tests put students with fewer resources at a disadvantage and that scores align with socioeconomic status.

    On the other hand, research has found the connection between socioeconomic status and test scores to be more moderate. A study of colleges adopting test-optional policies found that they only increase the share of Black, Latino, and Native American students by 1%; and the share of low-income students also by only 1%. The study noted that it’s hard to know why schools are becoming more diverse — one reason could be that more Latino and low-income students are applying to colleges. 

    From interviews with admits from underrepresented groups that featured in much of the press coverage about this year’s admissions results, it seems that test-optional policies encouraged many talented, diverse applicants to apply who would otherwise have been scared away because of their test scores.

    The Boston Globe featured a charter school whose students — mostly low-income Black and Latino — did unexpectedly well under this year’s test-optional policies. “The SATs being canceled was a blessing,” said one accomplished senior who believed she wouldn’t have applied to Cornell normally because of her test scores; she got in. 

    The data says: College rankings count (reported) test scores, First Generation graduation rates 

    Understatement alert! College rankings play a huge role in admissions. (This is less true for tippy-top schools of the Harvard ilk. But it’s extremely true for most colleges, even the selective ones.)

    Right now, the US New and World Report rankings still look at first-year test scores for students who submitted them. In addition, since 2020, they’ve been looking at graduation rates for first-generation students.

    This means two things for test-optional. First, colleges can take more interesting, impressive students without worrying about taking a “test score” hit in the rankings. (Highly selective schools like Harvard always could and did do this — although it seems like under test-optional, more of those interesting students may actually be applying.)

    Second, it’s possible that some of the increased diversity in selective college applications was more due to the first-generation rankings bump than other factors. 

    Bottom line: most applicants still need great test scores, but you should know if that’s not you

    Considering that:

    • test scores still help colleges in the rankings, 
    • colleges that are new to test-optional seem to give applicants with scores a preference (generally speaking), and
    • colleges use test scores to predict college success, particularly for STEM applicants and for applicants with oddities in their academic records,

    the data seems to point toward putting your energy into getting the best score you can get and submitting it.

    For most applicants.

    For many applicants, tests are stressful and/or a real weakness. If that’s your case, you can feel best about leaving them out if you fit one (or more) of these categories:

    • You’ve got a strong academic record (particularly if you’re not a STEM-leaning candidate).
    • You’re an exciting candidate for some other reason. (Are you responsible for a US Senator’s unexpected reelection?)
    • You’re from an underrepresented ethnic group and/or you’d be first-generation.

    If none of those bullets is you, but you still want to apply without your test scores, two bonus tips are:

    • Put everything into all the other pieces of your application — particularly essays — as those are the ones over which you have the most control. (We’d always give that advice, but it’s certainly true here.)
    • Do as much research as you can to find out (if possible) which schools will look most neutrally at your lack of scores — and which are most likely to penalize you. 


    For more information, check out: 

    Photo credit: Steve Webel

    Strong essays increase your chances of admissions by 10x. You don't have to tackle your essays alone.
    Get College Essay Help