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Test-optional admissions: Should you submit scores?

SDSU Student Services by Jim Brady

With students preparing for their early application deadlines, many wonder whether to submit their test scores to colleges that have test-optional policies. Like most aspects of the college admissions process, the answer is not straightforward, but there are steps you can take to better determine whether or not and how to submit scores.

Read each college's admissions testing policy very carefully

Most colleges are now test-optional, but there are a lot of variations in how this policy is implemented. A small group of colleges still requires SAT/ACT scores for all applicants, including MIT, Georgetown, and some campuses within the Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee state university systems. Some colleges require or recommend test scores for some applicants, such as those applying to STEM or business majors or those with GPAs that fall below the minimum GPA threshold.

Some are test flexible, which means that if you choose not to provide an SAT or ACT score, you are encouraged to provide AP scores. Some are truly test-optional, so you will not be penalized in any way for not providing scores. Some are test-free, such as the University of California and California State University systems, which will not consider SAT or ACT scores for the purpose of admissions, even if you provide them. Finally, some colleges or programs (e.g., business or engineering) that are test-optional, but really want your scores, will require you to submit an additional essay providing an explanation for the lack of scores, if you choose to apply without them.

Should you submit scores?

Again, the decision is nuanced and will depend on many factors. If the college requires scores, you will need to submit them, regardless.

If scores are not required, how selective/rejective is the college? If the college is highly rejective (e.g., <10% are admitted), the rule of thumb is to submit scores that are in the top 50% based on last year’s admitted students. Ongoing test-optional policies lead to increasingly higher average scores each year for many colleges–sometimes dramatically so. Therefore, two-year-old data points are stale.

This trend is unfortunate because the average scores for the most rejective colleges will steadily converge toward their limit: perfection. It is unclear how these scores, which will be submitted by a diminishing minority of applicants, will help admissions officers meaningfully differentiate between qualified applicants. Perhaps eventually they will all need to switch to test-free policies.

Less selective colleges are prone to the same test-score creep. However, less selective colleges that are concerned about student success may value seeing applicants’ scores, even if they are not in the top 50%, if those scores demonstrate capability. This is particularly true with math scores for applicants to engineering and business majors.

Along those lines, you should consider the major. For majors that require strength in specific areas, you may wish to submit discordant scores (e.g., scores that differ substantially between the math and English subsections), even if the composite score is not that strong. For example, if your math subscore is strong, you may wish to submit your scores if you are applying for math-intensive majors, like STEM or Business. On the other hand, if your Reading & Writing/English subscore is strong, you may want to submit your scores, if you are applying for writing intensive majors, like English and History.

Another consideration is whether you are part of a community that is underrepresented on the college’s campus or if you have experienced significant hardships or challenges in high school. Colleges that use holistic admissions review processes will consider all of your metrics in the context of your life experiences. A solid score can be helpful, even if it is not at or above the mid-range of admitted student scores, especially if the score is considered strong for your circumstances.

Consider calling your regional admissions representative

It is fine to reach out to your regional admissions representative to ask whether they think you should submit your scores. The helpfulness of the responses you get will vary by college and representative, but many will genuinely want to guide you through what can feel like a minefield in the admissions process.

How should you submit scores?

While carefully reviewing each college’s testing policies, also gather information from their admissions websites about how to report scores. In general, if you plan to submit your scores to any of the colleges on your list, you will want to enter them into the main section of the application, such as the middle tab on the Common Application. Then, in each college supplement, you will mark whether or not you want your scores to be considered for that college.

Some colleges require that you send official scores from either the College Board or the ACT. If you are required to submit official scores, plan to do so at least three weeks before the application deadline to ensure that your scores are received on time. Also, read the fine print to determine if the college will allow you to report only the highest scores or if you have to report all scores.

If the college allows you to self-report scores, save yourself money and do not pay to send official score reports to that college. In every case, though, be sure to triple check your self-reported scores against your score report to ensure that they are accurate.

Bottom line

Check each college's specific testing policy and how it is implemented.

Contact regional admissions representatives to ask for guidance on the test policy.

Submit your scores if you are in the top 50% of the score range for the previous year's admitted students.

Submit your scores if they are strong in the context of the totality of your circumstances.

Submit your composite scores if your SAT/ACT subscores demonstrate proficiency for the specific majors you're interested in.

Submit official scores via the College Board or ACT only if required.

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

Top: Student Services West at SDSU, by Jim Brady

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