By Kim Clark
Updated: December 20, 2016 3:46 PM ET

An estimated one out of six students struggles with the standardized tests that are crucial to college admissions. Thanks to subpar SAT or ACT scores, these teens never get a chance to show schools just what good students they are.

Luckily for them, a growing number of top-notch colleges are de-emphasizing those tests, and have created applications that give students the option of not submitting test scores. That’s the good news.

The bad news, however, is that there is no standard, official definition of “test optional” — meaning it can be hard for low-scoring students to find out which colleges really give them a chance, says Elizabeth Stone, author of an analysis of test-optional colleges for the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

Stone says, for example, that “test optional” lists on the Common App, and even sites like Fairtest, can be outdated or confusing. One issue is simply keeping up with rapidly changing college admissions rules. And terminology can be problematic, too. Some colleges such as New York University, for example, are “test flexible”: Applicants still have to submit some test results, but they can substitute Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate results instead of SAT or ACT scores.

To help students who struggle with the big tests, MONEY has identified 31 colleges that score well in its Best Colleges rankings — meaning they’re schools that deliver great value to students — and will accept some applicants despite poor test scores. These aren’t exactly safety schools, as you’ll see from the acceptance rates below. (Follow these three tips to get into a test-optional college.)

Keep reading below for a few key questions to ask a test-optional school before applying.

Name City State Rank Limits
Texas A & M University College Station TX 13 Only applicants in top 10% of their high school class
Earlham College Richmond IN 28
Washington State University Pullman WA 37 Only top 10% or a GPA of at least 3.5
Bowdoin College Brunswick ME 43
The University of Texas Austin TX 50
University of Delaware Newark DE 54 In-state only
Bates College Lewiston ME 61
College of the Holy Cross Worcester MA 65
Wesleyan University Middletown CT 68
Siena College Loudonville NY 72 Some programs
Gustavus Adolphus College Saint Peter MN 74
Muhlenberg College Allentown PA 87
The University of Texas at Dallas Richardson TX 91 Top 10%
Wake Forest University Winston-Salem NC 92
St Lawrence University Canton NY 95
Union College Schenectady NY 98
McDaniel College Westminster MD 100 Only top 10% or GPA of at least 3.5
California State University-Fresno Fresno CA 106 Only for GPA of at least 3.4
Lawrence University Appleton WI 114
Gettysburg College Gettysburg PA 114
Providence College Providence RI 134
Stonehill College Easton MA 136
Denison University Granville OH 140
Worcester Polytechnic Institute Worcester MA 142
Mount Holyoke College South Hadley MA 146
California State Polytechnic University-Pomona Pomona CA 149 Only for GPAs of at least 3.125
Loyola University Maryland Baltimore MD 160
Franklin and Marshall College Lancaster PA 165
The University of Montana-Western Dillon MT 172 Only for students in the top half of their class or with a GPA of at least 2.5
Hobart and William Smith Colleges Geneva NY 175
Mills College Oakland CA 175

Before you pursue a “test-optional” college application, experts such as Stone urge students to double check with the school and answer these six questions:

1. Will you qualify for a “test-optional” application? Most require applicants who don’t have grades – such as home-schooled students – to provide test scores. And some, such as Arizona State University, only provide the no-test option to students with grades or a class rank above a certain cutoff.

2. Will you still have to take tests and submit scores? Some “test-optional” schools such as Bowdoin won’t look at test scores while deciding whom to admit, but then require those they do admit to submit scores, presumably for class placement uses.

3. Will you have to do anything extra? Many test-optional colleges require extra essays, or recommendations, or submissions of graded papers in lieu of scores. Temple University, for example, requires applicants who don’t submit test scores to complete some short online essays.

4. What admission factors replace the scores? Many schools, such as Providence College and Bowdoin, say they look very carefully at the difficulty of courses the student took in high school. They are looking for students who took the hardest possible courses available to them — not those who took easy courses to score an A. “Taking more difficult classes and taking on more work tells you about the applicant’s disposition toward learning,” explains E. Whitney Soule, Bowdoin’s dean of admissions.

5. Do you really have a chance if you don’t submit scores? Many colleges will accept applications without scores, but end up rejecting a disproportionate number of those applications, says Stone. But she says others, such as George Washington University, have released admissions data for applicants who haven’t submitted scores that shows they are treating both kinds of applicants equally.

6. Will the lack of test scores affect financial aid? Some colleges, such as Western Oregon University, are “test optional” for admissions — but still award at least some “merit” aid based on test scores, notes Stone.

 

This story was updated at 1 p.m. 1/5/17 to correct the entries in “Limits” for Bates and the University of Delaware.

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