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Kristin Fracchia

SAT/ACT Test Optional and Test Required College Admissions

Wondering just what the heck test optional, test flexible, or test required means in the college admissions process? Check out the video above for the definitions and more on exactly what it means for your college applications.

The Test Optional Movement

Recently, George Washington University announced that it will no longer require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores (that is, unless you are a pre-med hopeful, home-schooled student, or athlete). This was big news, not because GWU is the first university to adopt a test optional approach–in fact, more than 800 schools have test optional or test flexible policies*–but because GWU is one of the largest and most influential universities to do so. As more competitive, well-respected institutions relax their standardized test policies, does this mean the end is near for the SAT and ACT?

Well…..the short answer is “No.”And we’re not just saying this because we are in the business of test prep. In fact, we education-lovers at Magoosh are big fans of helping students achieve their dreams, whether this means taking a test or not.

And it is certainly true that for many students, no matter how hard they try or how much help they have, SAT and ACT scores do not always align with academic success, and we would never want this to hold anyone back! So we’re happy to see more schools giving students alternative avenues to admissions.

But here’s why the SAT and ACT aren’t going away anytime soon, and why you probably still want to prepare for them even with more schools jumping on the test optional bandwagon.

Not All Students Qualify for Test Optional Admissions

Many colleges and universities that advertise themselves as test optional have some fine print. They may be test optional only if you have a certain GPA. They may still require SAT or ACT scores from home-schooled students or recruited athletes. If you are applying to a competitive program within the university, such as a 7- or 8-year accelerated pre-med/med program, your test scores may still be required. Some schools will allow you to bypass the SAT or ACT only if you can submit a battery of AP, IB, or SAT subject test scores. The message behind these caveats is that colleges and universities still feel that test scores provide them with valuable data on a student, particularly when they think need more information than what a transcript might tell them.

The Majority of Students Still Submit SAT or ACT Scores

Standardized tests are deeply ingrained in the psyches of college applicants. The number of students taking the SAT or ACT (or both) has risen year after year. Even when test scores are optional, many students send them anyway. This doesn’t necessarily mean they should. It just means that they are. This can make it tricky to decide whether or not your test scores are going to support your application or weaken it. And it often means that for some of the schools you are applying to, test scores might weaken your app, and for some of the schools you are applying to, they might help it. So it’s nice to have a test score in your back pocket so you can make the choice.

Most Large State Schools Require the SAT or ACT

The major reason why standardized test scores are so appealing to colleges is because they provide a metric to compare students who come from very different schools and backgrounds. And when your university receives tens of thousands of applications a year, test scores are a quick and easy way to make cuts. UCLA, for example, receives over 60,000 applications a year. The University of Michigan and Penn State each receive over 45,000 applications a year. With such overwhelming numbers of would-be students knocking down their doors, large schools are helplessly reliant on SAT or ACT scores.

Ultra-Competitive Schools All Require the SAT or ACT

Perfect or near-perfect SAT or ACT scores carry with them a certain mystique that is not going to go away anytime soon. And average test scores of admitted students are a key part of the all-important U.S. News and World Report college rankings. The currently highest ranked test optional national university is Wake Forest (sitting at #27 in 2015). So if you are targeting the most competitive schools, test scores are going to remain a crucial part of your application.

Fair or Not, Standardized Tests are Worth the Prep

For some students, standardized tests are indeed an unfair portrayal of their strengths, and, for these applicants, test optional colleges and universities can be very attractive options for a college list. In fact, they may make up the majority of a list. But as the situation stands now, it is a rare student who will be able to avoid standardized tests entirely and still keep his or her options open, so preparing for the SAT or ACT is still a very smart move.

*Check out a full list of test optional and test flexible colleges and universities at FairTest.

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About Kristin Fracchia

Dr. Kristin Fracchia makes sure Magoosh's sites are full of awesome, free resources that can be found by students prepping for standardized tests. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agony and bliss of trail running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.

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