How to Win the Test-Optional Race

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By Vinny Madera

Seemingly each day, we read about another college going temporarily test-optional or an article about the “over 1200 schools that have gone test-optional.” Invariably, the article will then list the University of Chicago, Wake Forest, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and some other well-known colleges to bolster its point. But have you ever thought about those other 1196 colleges and universities on the list?

Many test-preparation professionals would agree that certain test-optional policies are immensely beneficial and are needed. However, when talking with many parents and students, there is a lot of confusion about what “test-optional” actually means. Sadly, I think that, in the current pandemic landscape, it is causing students and parents to make questionable decisions about test preparation.

First off, though, to explain why test-optional is not a silver bullet, we need to get some basic facts out of the way.

  1. When any news institution mentions test-optional, they are using the data from
  2. Test-optional is an umbrella term for many different policies. Using the definitions put forth by NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, we have these different policies under “test-optional.”
    • Optional for All: Allows most or all students to choose whether to submit standardized testing scores as part of their admission application.
    • Optional Plus: Non-submitters are required to supplement their application with an interview or extra writing samples.
    • Optional for Some: Testing options are offered to some student groups but not others. Many times, students in this category need to submit test scores for scholarship consideration, enrolling in certain programs, if they are homeschooled, or if they are out-of-state.
    • Academic Threshold: Students who meet certain academic criteria (e.g. class rank, GPA) are admitted without standardized testing scores as part of the admissions decision. Sometimes it’s called “Assured Admission” or “Guaranteed Admission.”
    • Test Flexible: Students submit scores from other standardized testing (e.g. International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, SAT Subject Tests) in place of the ACT or SAT.
    • Test Blind: Scores may be submitted, but they will not be reviewed by admissions staff to make the academic decision.

When people hear “test optional,” they tend to assume it means what is outlined above as “test blind.” In fact, schools with test-blind policies are actually very rare — fewer than 1% of the colleges on the Fairtest list.

In reality though, it seems the real definition should be “Is there ANY possible way for at least one student to get into the institution without submitting test scores?” And here’s a fun fact: the majority of applicants to test-optional schools submit test scores anyways. For example:

And why wouldn’t applicants submit test scores if that would help their application look stronger? What seems better? A 3.95 GPA alone — or a 3.95 GPA and high test scores? An analogy:

For all the benefits that test optional policies have offered — particularly for female and minority applicants — each applicant is still competing against a large pool of would-be students looking to snatch his or her spot at the school. Make no mistake: when a school goes test optional, more people will apply there. Now there’s more competition for students seeking the same relative number of seats at the school. And, as GPA inflation continues to grow in our high schools, more students have similar GPAs than in yesteryear. What better way to differentiate yourself from a peer than with a higher SAT or ACT score?

Unless you have some amazing talent, ooze leadership skills, or have a breathtaking personal story, your test scores are almost certainly going to be part of the deciding factor for you to be admitted at a school. Let’s break down some numbers for the University of Chicago.

What’s missing from any reported numbers is what percent of those who did not submit scores were admitted. If we make the assumption that the percent of students admitted from both the submitted tests pool and test not submitted pool were both 6.17%, that comes out to between 214 and 321 students were admitted without test scores. Out of 2,137 admitted students, fewer than 321 submitted no test scores. Those are pretty low odds for winning the race. Now, if you have that “it” factor that could make you one of those fortunate admitted students, put that ACT book back on the shelf, deactivate your Khan Academy account, and spend your time being as awesome as you already are.

There is no dispute that SAT and ACTs favor the wealthy, but there are plenty of free or low-cost options for preparation. When done well, SAT and ACT improvement does not have to cost a lot or take a lot of time. Remember you don’t need to out-run the bear to get into your first-choice college. When you invest some time and money to prepare for the ACT or SAT, however, you stand a better chance of out-running your fellow applicants to land a seat in the freshman class. Now is a good time to start getting in shape!

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This is a condensed version of an article by Vinny Madera, founder of Test Prep Wizards in Fairfield, CT. The full article is here