What to Consider When Applying Test-Optional


The option to apply to colleges test-optional first occurred in 2001 when the President of the University of California recommended that colleges stop using standardized test scores as an admission requirement. Test-optional has been around for more than two decades for some schools, but in the last three years and the wake of COVID-19, it has become a viable option for high school students with high grade point averages and low test scores. Students are falling back on test-optional admissions if their test scores are less than stellar, but should they?

Things to think about.

College Admissions have used standardized test scores as admission criteria for over 100 years. If a college allows students to apply test-optional, are they reviewing all applications in a holistic manner? Are they giving more weight to students with a standardized test score, than those applying test-optional? Ask for the data!

Admission factors to consider when applying test-optional. 

  • Your grade point average must be in the top 25% of the college’s admission criteria. 
  • Your essay must be creative and unique, and leave the college representative wanting to know more about who you are. 
  • Your resume must be concise and explanatory. The college representative wants to know that you were productive at your high school and you will bring that same work ethic and rigor to the college environment.
  • You must be able to showcase that you excelled in a rigorous course load throughout high school, i.e. enrolled in Honors and AP courses. 
  • Your teacher letter of recommendation needs to portray your specific accomplishments within the classroom, how you learn, and how you grew throughout the year.
  • Your counselor letter of recommendation should explain your personal attributes, work ethic, and characteristics. 
  • Coach your teachers and counselor on what you would like in your recommendation letters. Many high schools have a brag sheet or letter of recommendation request form that the student should complete before asking the teacher/counselor for a recommendation letter. It is best practice to aso give your teacher/counselor your resume before they write your letter of recommendation. 
  • Job shadow or intern in the field you plan to major in. College representatives are looking for students with hands-on experience and leadership roles. 

Are you applying to a college with a competitive direct-admit or accelerated program?

  • Most direct-admit programs require a standardized test score. If you plan to apply for direct-admission into Nursing, Engineering, Business, Occupational Therapy, Physical Therapy, or Speech Pathology, the college will most likely require a standardized test score.
  • These programs are highly selective. It is highly recommended that you apply to 15-17 schools if you have a high grade point average and a standardized test score that does not meet the admission criteria. 
  • Research the admission requirements for each direct-admit program. The requirements will vary depending on the college, along with the standardized test score range for admittance. Know where you fall among the colleges’ admission statistics. 
  • Call the college representative and ask how many in-state and out-of-state students they accept into the program. 
  • Ask the college representative what are the major admission factors considered when admitting students into these competitive programs. 

Take Action

Call each college you plan to apply and speak to an admission representative. Ask each representative the following questions.

  • Last year, how many students did the college accept who applied test-optional?
  • Last year, how many students did the college accept who applied with a test score?
  • From the students who applied test-optional and were accepted, how many students lived in-state and how many lived out-of-state?
  • If I apply to your institution (tell the representative your GPA and ACT/SAT test score), should I apply test-optional or should I send my test scores for admittance?
  • Will I receive more or less merit aid if I send my test score?