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31 Great Colleges That Don't Care About Your Lousy Test Scores

Updated: Dec 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Stone says, for example, that “test optional” lists on the Common App, and even sites like Fairtest, can be outdated or confusing.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.

Texas A & M UniversityCollege StationTX13Only applicants in top 10% of their high school class
Earlham CollegeRichmondIN28
Washington State UniversityPullmanWA37Only top 10% or a GPA of at least 3.5
Bowdoin CollegeBrunswickME43
The University of TexasAustinTX50
University of DelawareNewarkDE54 In-state only
Bates CollegeLewistonME61
College of the Holy CrossWorcesterMA65
Wesleyan UniversityMiddletownCT68
Siena CollegeLoudonvilleNY72Some programs
Gustavus Adolphus CollegeSaint PeterMN74
Muhlenberg CollegeAllentownPA87
The University of Texas at DallasRichardsonTX91Top 10%
Wake Forest UniversityWinston-SalemNC92
St Lawrence UniversityCantonNY95
Union CollegeSchenectadyNY98
McDaniel CollegeWestminsterMD100Only top 10% or GPA of at least 3.5
California State University-FresnoFresnoCA106Only for GPA of at least 3.4
Lawrence UniversityAppletonWI114
Gettysburg CollegeGettysburgPA114
Providence CollegeProvidenceRI134
Stonehill CollegeEastonMA136
Denison UniversityGranvilleOH140
Worcester Polytechnic InstituteWorcesterMA142
Mount Holyoke CollegeSouth HadleyMA146
California State Polytechnic University-PomonaPomonaCA149Only for GPAs of at least 3.125
Loyola University MarylandBaltimoreMD160
Franklin and Marshall CollegeLancasterPA165
The University of Montana-WesternDillonMT172Only for students in the top half of their class or with a GPA of at least 2.5
Hobart and William Smith CollegesGenevaNY175
Mills CollegeOaklandCA175

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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