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By Varsity Tutors
April 28, 2015

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” For years, college-bound students were defined by a single facet of their applications (namely, their ACT or SAT score), but this reality has begun to dramatically change. Now, students can forego these exams in favor of test-optional admissions.

For those who are currently in high school, the most pressing question may be, “Should I choose this path?” Test-optional admissions is not without its negatives, especially if you select it blindly. If you are considering this option, read on to discover what every student should know about test-optional admissions before they act.

What is test-optional admissions?

Test-optional admissions is an admissions practice at select colleges and universities. The word, “select,” is key here – despite its growing popularity, not all schools offer test-optional admissions. If a student decides to apply to a test-optional institution, he or she can choose whether or not to submit ACT/SAT scores as part of his or her application. In contrast, test-blind schools like Hampshire College will not view any student’s ACT/SAT results, no matter how high the score.

Contrary to popular opinion, test-optional admissions is not a new practice. For instance, it has been in use at Bowdoin College since the late 1960s.

Why do some students choose test-optional admissions?

There are a number of reasons a student might gravitate toward test-optional admissions. For individuals with test anxiety, taking the ACT or SAT can be nerve-wracking, and they may struggle to achieve a competitive score. The same can be said of students who simply don’t test well. Thus, test-optional admissions is most often used by individuals who believe standardized exams do not reflect their true academic potential. It is not an easy way to avoid studying and sitting for the ACT or SAT.

Is test-optional admissions right for me?

Like many things in life, test-optional admissions is not for everyone. If you are contemplating test-optional admissions, there are several issues to weigh, including:

  1. Your academic record

When a school evaluates a test-optional application, it pays particular attention to grades and the difficulty of the completed curriculum. Students who excel in AP, dual-enrollment, honors, and IB courses – and who have the As to prove it – may find that test-optional admissions is particularly well suited to them. This is likewise true of individuals who have shown consistent academic improvement over the course of one or more years (note, however, that a single semester of high marks will not erase several other years of subpar achievement). Simply put, your high school transcript should clearly communicate your dedication to education and your passion for learning. If it does, test-optional admissions could be a great choice.

  1. Your exam history

We all have firsthand experience with tests – state assessments, unit exams, and so on. However, your personal history with tests is unique to you, and it’s important to review it before you move forward with your college applications. For example, do you shine on multiple-choice exams or on creative projects? Acing a standardized test involves strategy, rather than just sheer knowledge; for this reason, the ACT/SAT can be an inaccurate portrait of certain students’ capabilities. If your exam results do not reflect your marks on most other academic tasks, test-optional admissions may be right for you.

  1. Your prospective schools

Consider the colleges and universities to which you plan to apply. How many of these schools offer test-optional admissions? Will you need to take the ACT/SAT for four of six colleges or zero of six? If even one school requires a standardized exam, it may be worth submitting your scores to every prospective college on your list. After all, your last two years of high school are a busy time, and if you must dedicate precious weeks or months to test prep, why not commit yourself to this effort and enhance all your applications with an additional data point?

  1. Your financial aid prospects

Some academic institutions and outside organizations require ACT/SAT results as part of their decision-making process. Before you commit yourself to test-optional admissions, research the criteria for any grants or scholarships that appeal to you. This might mean browsing an organization’s website or contacting a school’s Office of Financial Aid. If you apply under test-optional admissions, will you be sacrificing potential monetary support? Will losing this support compromise your ability to attend your prospective colleges? While the effort and expense to take the ACT or SAT may seem large now, the cost of four years of university is much greater. If test-optional admissions will limit any needed financial aid, it may be best to follow a more traditional admissions path.

Test-optional admissions can be a true advantage when students utilize it correctly, in the right scenario. To ensure your application is as successful as possible, examine every aspect of your academic profile, as well as the admissions and financial aid practices at your prospective schools. With just a little forethought, you can start your journey toward college on the right foot.

Caroline Duda is a contributing writer for Varsity Tutors. She earned a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her Bachelor’s degree from Saint Lawrence University.

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