Is the SAT® optional?

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Is there a SAT®-free future in store for college admissions? After sweeping educational disruptions due to COVID-19, parents and teens are wondering what’s next for this staple of the college application process.

In 2021, top colleges like Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton dropped their typical standardized testing requirements because of the challenges posed by the global pandemic. Now that in-person learning has, for the most part, resumed, and the logistical barriers of remote testing are removed, what’s next? 

For some colleges and universities, that might be reevaluating (or scrapping) their SAT® and ACT® requirements. We hear terms like “test optional” and “test flexible” more and more these days, but what do they actually mean?

Let’s take a closer look at the current debate surrounding this issue and the indicators of what’s next for the SAT® in 2022 and beyond. 

What is “test optional”? Which colleges are SAT® test optional?

Test optional colleges give applicants the choice to send in their SAT® and or ACT® scores or submit applications without them.  

You might also hear the term “test flexible” in the college admissions world. This means that the university offers potential students the option to submit either their SAT® or ACT® scores, or even to pick and choose their highest scores from multiple rounds of test-taking. 

In other words, standardized test scores of some kind were required, but there was a little wiggle room for students. Before the pandemic, most colleges were leaning towards some version of the “test-flexible” model

So, where are we now? 

Will the SAT® continue to be optional?

Tempting though it might be to think that “test-optional” is the way of the future, it’s important to note: the vast majority of US colleges and universities that changed their policies only did so temporarily. 

As of now, that means a requirement could resume as soon as the 2023 admissions cycle next fall. So, students could be looking at a definitive SAT® prerequisite or a test-flexible application in the near future. 

That said, it’s still worthwhile to consider what a “test-optional” world might look like. Among many questions, that leaves us wondering: would skipping the SAT®, even if the college doesn’t require a score submission, help or harm students’ chances of admission?

Why would the SAT become optional?

In 2021-2022 academic year, two thirds of US colleges did not require SAT® scores due to COVD-19 challenges. As high schools and universities continue to grapple with the impacts of the pandemic, it could be that the SAT® remains optional at some institutions. 

Prestigious schools like the College of William and Mary, Tufts University, Davidson College, and Trinity University have already dropped the SAT® through 2024, and others may follow suit. 

But the pandemic is not the only piece of this puzzle. Even in a pre-COVID-19 world, admissions offices, students, teachers, and other stakeholders have debated the necessity of tests like the ACT and SAT®.

No doubt, the prospect of “pencils down” will be music to the ears of high schoolers, standardized testing critics, and those who have pointed out equity issues posed by  the SAT® as a core part of collegiate admissions. 

Is it actually time to say goodbye to the SATs®? For that matter, is the use of admissions-contingent standardized testing soon to become a thing of the past? 

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. 

There are those who argue that an SAT® score offers a useful, relatively objective insight into students’ academic ability. Other benefits of the SAT® include first-year class placement, scholarship eligibility, and even outreach from schools inviting test-takers to apply. 

Advocates for the test also note that an SAT® or ACT® score is just one component of a prospective student’s profile, and it’s by no means the be all and end all of their application. Students’ extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and other factors complete the picture, so no one SAT® score per se makes or breaks an admission decision. 

And while short-term changes to many colleges’ application requirements might indicate a major shift down the road, there’s no guarantee that will happen. For now, though, we’re seeing more and more schools adopt “test optional” policies. 

If the SAT is optional, should students still take it?

The short answer here is: most likely, yes.

In fact, some evidence suggests that submitting test scores, even if they are optional, boosts applicants’ chances of admissions. Data from prestigious schools like Emory, Vanderbilt, and Colgate show higher acceptance rates for students who chose to send in their SAT® or ACT® scores. 

“Many colleges did not use test scores as a metric for admissions this year. But what I found in talking to admission deans over the last couple weeks at highly selective colleges was that, for the most part, their acceptance rates for students with scores were higher than those without scores. So, it was test optional with an asterisk,” said Jeffrey Selingo, higher education expert and author of “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions.”

Naturally, there are numerous other factors to consider when deciding whether or not to submit test scores to teens' colleges of choice. 

Naturally, students should carefully track the admissions requirements of every college on their list. Our guess is that it’s likely at least one of the schools teens are interested in will have some sort of ACT®/SAT® requirement, so it’s best to be prepared on that front! 

Even if students choose not to submit their scores, they’ll never know if a strong test score could help their application until they try, right?

That means students should pause to ask themselves: should I take the SAT® or ACT®? Which of these tests would show their academic strengths in the best light? Which section will be the most difficult, and might require some extra tutoring and study? 

With those questions answered, let’s get back to that test-optional conundrum.

Ask yourself and your student: how might test scores factor into the application as a whole? Remember, college applications are weighed in a holistic manner. If they decide to opt out, think about which other elements of their application could receive special attention.

Many colleges receive tens of thousands of applications every year, so it’s worth considering (and using) every tool at your disposal that can be used to stand out from the crowd. With proper preparation, a strong SAT® or ACT® score can make a difference in doing exactly that. 

Is the SAT® the only way to stand out? No, of course not. Every student is unique and has different strengths to offer their future freshman class above and beyond test scores. Is the SAT® worth exploring and considering seriously? Absolutely. 

Tips for SAT success 

There’s no way around it: test prep can seem daunting at first, so we recommend starting well in advance (and taking a deep breath)!

Here are a few considerations and steps to take to make sure students get their best shot at the SAT®:

Take a practice test (or two). The format of the test is probably different from what teens typically see in school, so getting a feel for that alone is worth a practice run. 

Discuss practice test scores. By talking through the test with a parent, teacher, or SAT® tutor, teens can de-mystify their results and better target their studying. 

Join a study group. If your teen does well with group learning, see if there are any SAT® prep groups offered through their school, or encourage them to start their own. 

(Quality) Practice, practice, practice. Reputable sources like the College Board or Barron's make better practice than random online practice questions.

Try SAT tutoring. Expert help goes a long way, especially for something as unique as the SAT® or ACT®.

A photo of Virginia

Virginia started with iD Tech at the University of Denver in 2015 and has loved every minute since then! A former teacher by trade, she has a master's in education and loves working to embolden the next generation through STEM. Outside the office, you can usually find her reading a good book, struggling on a yoga mat, or exploring the Rocky Mountains. 

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