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Test-optional admissions information & strategies

Featured: Wheeler Hall, UC Berkeley (23 September 2021). Image by Matthew Enger

Starting in 2020, many colleges and universities that previously required SAT or ACT scores for admission switched to “test optional” admissions policies; others, such as the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU), made headlines for abandoning standardized test scores completely. For students who are only interested in going to a UC or CSU campus, this is great news because it could mean savings in time and money that otherwise would have been spent on test preparation and exam sessions. But for most students, the question of whether to take the test or report the scores is more nuanced.

Should you take the test?

With the bulk of universities currently allowing applicants to choose whether or not to submit test scores, it can be tricky to figure out whether it’s worth taking the test or not. Capstone’s general advice for those applicants is to take the test if you can, but there are some exceptions, noted below.

The reason we advise taking the test is that a lot of colleges that adopted test-optional policies during the pandemic out of necessity haven’t really changed their views on the value of test scores. They simply realized that many students couldn’t take the test because of the pandemic and would therefore be ineligible for admission unless they were given the option of not reporting scores.

Now, colleges that temporarily adopted test-optional policies are trying to decide how much they want or need test scores, and there are a couple reasons why they may be interested in returning to mandatory test requirements for admissions. First, while a student’s academic record (grades earned and courses taken) has traditionally been the best predictor of college success, test scores provide additional predictive value. Second, education researchers have documented a trend in grade inflation among many high schools across the country, which makes the transcript potentially a less reliable assessment of student achievement than it has been in the past. Colleges often use test scores to “validate” the academic transcript to ensure that the student is truly qualified for the college and capable of managing the workload.

Ultimately, colleges’ decisions about whether or not to return to required testing may hinge on the success of their currently enrolled students who were admitted without scores. Many colleges are already beginning to see that students who didn’t submit scores are performing academically as well as students who did. Some admissions directors admit that they will continue to track this and that they may find that test scores are not as significant as previously thought. In addition, most universities and colleges have seen measurable increases in applications since going test-optional, and this may be reason enough to continue, especially for private institutions who are competing for applicants.

While we do believe that most students should try to take the test, there are some important exceptions. We believe that the stress, time and expense of test preparation may not be in the best interest of students who have learning challenges, a long history of not being strong test-takers, or significant test anxiety. Capstone counselors are here to help provide guidance on this issue for each individual student and their families.

Should you report your scores?

Students who choose to take the ACT or SAT then have the difficult decision of whether to report their scores. Determining how strong your SAT or ACT scores are and whether to report them can be tricky. Objectively high scores—over 1450 on the SAT and 33 composite on ACT—are generally good to submit, except at the most highly “rejective” colleges that expect nearly perfect scores. Whether your specific score is strong enough to submit will depend on each school you apply to, individually. A submittable score for one college may be too low to help your application at another.

Autzen Stadium at University of Oregon at night by Ray Terrill

Autzen Stadium (University of Oregon) at night by Ray Terrill. CC BY-SA 2.0

The best way to determine whether you should submit a score is by visiting each college’s admissions website and looking up their admitted students’ average test scores. A good rule of thumb is that if your score is above the average, you should submit it, but there are exceptions. In some cases, you will want to submit your scores only if they are somewhat above average compared with last year’s admitted students. In other cases, if you simply meet or exceed the minimum required scores (e.g., for some public universities), you may want to report your scores.

Keep in mind that because only students with above-average scores tend to submit them to test-optional colleges, those colleges’ average test scores have been rising quickly, out of proportion to what the average scores of all admitted students would have been had they taken the test and submitted their scores. Test score inflation is artificial, but it increases colleges’ rankings in the US News & World Report, which creates an additional incentive for some, often middle- and lower-ranked colleges, to keep the test-optional system in place. Without doing any work, they can advertise higher average scores and appear more selective than they really are. As a result, many are calling on US News & World Report to remove scores from their rankings methodology, but so far they have refused to do so.

What about transfer students?

Students who transfer to a new college after their freshman or sophomore year may need to submit test scores as part of their transfer application. Taking the test in high school can therefore serve as a bit of an insurance policy in case the first university you attend ends up being a poor fit. Most students won’t want or need to transfer away from the first school they attend, but if you’re worried you might be in that situation, you may want to take the SAT or ACT while you’re still in high school, even if your top-choice schools use test-free admissions.


For now, we believe that for most students your best option is to take the SAT or ACT. If your scores are relatively strong, they can help your applications and you will have the option to submit them. If you aren’t happy with your scores, you can choose to build your college list with test-optional and test-free colleges and not submit your scores.

For more information, please reach out to our counselors at Capstone. We are happy to help!

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