What If My Test Scores Suck?! Test Optional Colleges and Universities

Though I do consider myself a bit of an SAT Guru, I am highly critical of the usefulness of the SAT. Statistically speaking, SAT scores have very little correlation with college grades. In addition, the test itself is biased towards very specific demographics. Some brilliant people will struggle with standardized testing and some unintelligent people will ace their exams.

For those of you who feel that your standardized test scores are not indicative of your intelligence or academic ability, you have a couple of different options:

Holistic Admissions
Many schools have holistic admissions practices. This means that they look at the applicant as a whole person. At colleges that employ this philosophy, test scores make up only a small part of the admissions application and are looked at in the context of grades, recommendations, extracurricular activities, essays, and personal qualities. However, these institutions still require students to send standardized test scores.

Some applicants fear that even though there is no test score “cut off,” their test scores will bar them admissions from selective colleges and universities. This fear is not necessarily unfounded. For example, it is unlikely that a student applying to Williams College who scored a 1700 on his SATs would be admitted. Only 9% of admitted students earned a score from 500-590 on the math portion of the SAT. That said, nearly a tenth of the class has SAT math scores that are in the 500s. This is significant considering that Williams is such a selective school. These students clearly had something compelling that caused admissions officers to look over the relatively weak test scores. They might be students who have overcome enormous obstacles like poverty or homelessness, they may be recruited athletes, or they may have unbelievable academic accomplishments.

Nonetheless, Williams saw these applicants as whole people with something to contribute to the school besides just standardized test scores. Students with relatively low test scores do face an uphill battle in gaining admission to the most competitive schools, but if these colleges identify these applicants as a great fit for the institution, test scores are not nearly as important.

Test-Flexible Colleges
While many selective colleges and universities will have stringent test requirements (e.g. two SAT Subject Tests in addition to the SAT or ACT), other top colleges such as Bryn Mawr College and New York University have employed “test-flexible” policies. Bryn Mawr, for example, states this testing policy:

Students select one of the following configurations of tests to submit:

  • SAT Reasoning Test and a combination of two SAT Subject Tests or AP tests in two different disciplines
  • ACT
  • A combination of three SAT Subject Tests and/or AP tests in the following categories:
    1. Science or math
    2. English, history, languages, arts or social sciences
    3. Student’s choice: One test of the student’s choice but in a discipline different from the other two

Test-flexible policies allow colleges to look at their students in the context of nationally-normed examinations, but give students more choices in how they “show their stuff.” For instance, some students have difficulty with the SAT but earn wonderful grades in school. This may be because the SAT, rather than testing knowledge and critical thinking of a content area, theoretically tests analytical and reasoning skills (whether the College Board is successful with this is questionable). Advanced Placement (AP) exams, on the other hand, test students on their knowledge and reasoning skills of a specific curriculum. As a result, some students earn high marks on their AP or IB exams while struggling with SATs. These students can thus demonstrate to test-flexible colleges and universities that they are capable of excelling academically in college without having to reveal their SAT or ACT scores.

Test-Optional Colleges
More and more colleges and universities across the United States, including some that are highly selective, are adopting test-optional admissions policies. They state that what they value in their students—leadership and intellectual curiosity, for instance—cannot be captured in a test score. For this reason, students have the option of whether or not to submit standardized test scores. Some critics argue that these schools are removing the testing requirement so that their average SAT and ACT scores will increase. This works under the hypothesis that students with lower scores will choose not submit their test scores. As a result, those low scores are no longer a part of the mean equation. The schools’ rankings in US News and World Reports might then improve, boosting the schools’ reputations.

Regardless of the underlying motivations of these colleges and universities, these institutions still have test-optional admissions. Students with scores that fall far outside (for the SAT, more than 30 points below the 25th percentile score) can use this admissions policy to their advantage. Keep in mind, though, that many of these schools, like Bowdoin and Wake Forest, are still highly selective. If the rest of your application is mediocre, not submitting your standardized test scores will not grant you admission. You still need to be an outstanding applicant.

One final note on test-optional schools: some schools may have restrictions for applicants who choose not to submit test scores. Goucher College, for instance, states that students interested in receiving merit scholarships need to submit the SAT or the ACT. Other schools like Hampshire College allow all applicants to be considered for merit scholarships regardless of their decision regarding test scores. If you want to earn a merit scholarship, be sure to check your school’s testing policy before making a decision on whether to submit test scores.

Remember, your standardized test scores are not a measure of your worth as a person. Ultimately, there are many options for students who aren’t fond of their SAT or ACT scores. Colleges all over the world are far more interested in your other talents, motivations, and abilities than your relative weakness (or strength) in taking standardized tests.

Some Competitive Test-Flexible Colleges and Universities:

Some Competitive Test-Optional Colleges and Universities:

For a full list of test optional schools, see FairTest.

Still have questions? Send me an email at hbrinn@thecollegiateblog.com or write in the comment box below.