What does 'test optional' really mean?
Good News/Bad News
The bad news is that ‘test optional’ made an already confusing college application process even more confusing. I know, I didn’t think that was possible either.
The good news is that I’m about to make all of this ‘test optional’ business MUCH easier to understand. In about 5 minutes you’re going to know exactly what test optional means and if your son or daughter should take the ACT/SAT and submit scores or not.
Colleges and universities fit into one of three buckets.
Bucket #1: Schools that require an ACT or SAT score. As of this writing, about 25% of schools WILL REQUIRE an ACT or SAT. You have to submit an ACT or SAT score with your application.
Bucket #2: Schools that will NOT ACCEPT an ACT or SAT score. As of this writing, about 10% of schools will not look at an ACT or SAT score, even if you submit one.
Bucket #3: Test optional schools. This leaves about 65% of schools as test optional. If you choose to submit an ACT or SAT score, you can. And your score will be an important data point in your application. You can also choose NOT to submit a score, and your application will be evaluated without factoring in a test score. There is no penalty for not submitting a score.
Something to keep in mind – schools do switch buckets. MIT, for example, recently announced that it will now require an ACT or SAT score. So be sure to check with your target schools to get the most recent ACT/SAT requirements. Don’t worry. It’s not hard. They’ll tell you the requirements on their websites. Worst case scenario is you’ll need to call the admissions department.
The next FAQ helps you decide if your son or daughter should take the ACT or SAT and if they should submit their score.
If my son or daughter is applying to 'test optional' schools, should they take the ACT or SAT at all? And if they do, how do we know if they should submit their score?
If your son or daughter is definitely and absolutely ONLY applying to schools that DO NOT require an ACT or SAT score, then congratulations ... you win! You don’t need to worry about the test.
If they are applying to even one school that requires an ACT or SAT score, then they MUST take either the ACT or SAT.
If they are applying ONLY to test-optional schools, then they have to decide if they should take the ACT/SAT or not.
Things to Consider
Every family and every student are different so these are some things to consider as you make decisions.
Generally, I recommend that students take the ACT or SAT. A test score is just one more tool that can help them get accepted to their target school. A good score can help their chances quite a bit. And they don't have to submit their score so there isn't really any downside to taking the test and getting a score.
What's a 'good score'?
Good test scores only help their chances of getting accepted. A 'good score' is any score that's above the median for their target school. So if the school they are applying to has a median SAT score of, say 1180, and they score a 1220, then they should definitely submit their score. It will help their chances of being admitted. If they score below 1180, then don’t submit the score. It will decrease their chances of getting accepted. Schools generally publish the average scores of the last incoming class on their websites. Worst case scenario is you might have to call the admissions department to get that information.
My general recommendation is, for most students, it’s worth the time and energy to prep and take the ACT or SAT. If they don’t score well, there’s no downside; simply don’t submit the scores. If they do score well, then they have one more very compelling data point in their application.
One More Thing to Consider
There is one more thing to consider. If your son or daughter is an excellent student with an already excellent application, submitting a test score isn’t necessary and might even hurt their chances of getting accepted.
If they are in the fortunate position of surpassing all of the requirements for their target school (GPA class rank, extra-curriculars, etc.) and if they are confident that they are submitting an outstanding application that not only ticks, but exceeds, all of the admissions boxes for a particular school, then quit while you’re ahead. Unless the test scores just blow away the average test score for that school, they have nothing to gain by submitting a test score. And it’s possible that submitting a test score that isn’t absolutely fabulous could actually hurt their chances of getting accepted.
If, on the other hand, their academic record was more like mine (not bad, but a bit mixed) then submitting a high test score is a GREAT way to wipe away any doubts or questions about their academic ability. A really good test score can greatly increase their chances of getting into that ‘reach’ school that they're dreaming about.
What is the PSAT and should my son or daughter take it?
The Many PSAT Tests
There are actually three PSAT tests:
- PSAT 8/9
- PSAT 10
The thing that all three of the PSAT tests have in common is that they are ALL OPTIONAL. The PSAT is not required for admission into any college or university. In fact, only ACT or SAT scores are accepted for college admission.
So why take the PSAT?
That is a very good question. The purpose of the PSAT is to give students an opportunity to sharpen their test prep skills and practice taking standardized tests in a formal environment.
Also, and importantly, the PSAT/NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) is the test that is used to determine national merit scholarships — a VERY big deal.
Also, schools look at PSAT scores to identify prospective students, so even if a student doesn’t become a National Merit Scholar, a good score will likely trigger emails from admissions departments from across the country.
It certainly is nice to have colleges and universities courting YOU!
The PSAT 8/9 is the easiest and shortest of the PSAT exams. It’s designed for 8th and 9th graders to give them practice in taking standardized tests and help them practice for the PSAT 10 and the PSAT/NMSQT. The test is two hours, 25 minutes long and is divided into reading comp, writing (grammar) and math. The test is scored on a scale of 240–1440. National percentile rankings are also provided along with the scores.
The PSAT 10 is designed for sophomores and juniors. The test is longer and harder than the PSAT 8/9 and is similar to both the actual SAT and the PSAT/NMSQT. The test is two hours, 45 minutes long and is divided into reading comp, writing (grammar) and math. The test is scored on a scale of 320–1520. National percentile rankings are also provided along with the scores.
The PSAT/NMSQT is generally taken in the junior year and scores qualify for National Merit Scholarships. You don't have to do register for National Merit Scholar. Just taking the test automatically puts you in the competition. The test is similar to the PSAT 10 and is two hours, 45 minutes long. The PSAT/NMSQT is only offered once a year, in October, and is scored on a scale of 320–1520. National percentile rankings are also provided along with the scores. The highest achievers qualify automatically for National Merit Scholarship awards.
What is a National Merit Scholar and how does my son or daughter qualify?
PSAT/NMSQT National Merit Scholarships
Each year, about 1.5 million juniors take the PSAT/ NMSQT. National Merit Scholarship awards are based on students’ performance on that test.
The awards are:
- Commended — About 50,000 (about top 3%) are awarded “Commended” recognition.
- Semi-Finalist — Of the 50,000 students recognized for “Commended,” about 16,000 are recognized as National Merit Semifinalists.
- Finalist — Of the 16,000 semifinalists, about 15,000 are recognized as National Merit Scholar Finalists. Semifinalists advance to finalist standing by submitting an application including SAT scores and academic records.
What's the difference between the ACT and SAT?
A lot is made about the differences between the two tests. (Not surprisingly, most of this comes from the test makers themselves.) Practically speaking, there really isn’t that much difference between the tests — that’s because standardized tests all tend to work in very similar ways.
At first, trying to determine the differences between the two tests could make you dizzy. So I’ve provided a list of key differences.
Key differences between the ACT and the SAT
- Reading Comp — almost none
- English/Writing — almost none
- Math — ACT is more straightforward but asks more questions in a shorter period of time. SAT allows more time per question, but questions are trickier.
- Science — ACT has a science section. The SAT does not. The ACT science section has very little to do with science and lot to do with chart reading.
In general terms, the ACT tends to be a bit more straightforward but moves really fast. There is less time per question than on the SAT.
The SAT tends to ask “tricker” questions but students get more time per question than on the ACT.
It’s been my experience that students simply prefer one test over the another. And I encourage students to take both an ACT practice test and an SAT practice test (they are free at ACT.org and collegeboard.org) and see which one is the best fit for them.
Almost all colleges and universities accept either test. Check your target school just to make sure.
When should my son or daughter take the ACT or SAT?
The big secret about the ACT and SAT is that nearly all of the material on the test is stuff the kids learned by freshman or sophomore year. Yes, the ACT math dabbles in some basic trig, but it’s like two questions on the test. So by the summer of sophomore year, the kids have pretty much learned all the material on the test.
So the decision on timing really comes down to making the college application process as easy and stress-free as possible. I generally encourage students to take their first ACT or SAT in the summer after their sophomore year or early in their junior year.
There are two reasons for that. First, getting the testing out of the way early takes away stress, and students and families can use the second half of junior year to concentrate on narrowing down colleges and filling out applications, applying for financial aid, finding scholarships, etc. It’s just a lot less stressful not to have the test hanging over your head at the same time.
Second, students tend to take the ACT or SAT more than one time. So that gives students plenty of opportunities to take the test again to improve their score or to super score (I explain super scoring in the next FAQ).
What is super scoring?
If a student takes the SAT or ACT more than once, super score only looks at the best score the student achieves on any section. It essentially mixes and matches the student's best section performance over multiple test sittings.
For example, if a student scores a 25 on math and 30 on reading, the first time they take the ACT, but the second time they score a 31 on math and a 25 on reading, the schools would only look at the highest scores. Math: 31, Reading: 30.
Many schools use super scoring when they evaluate student applications. Check with your target schools to be sure.
Super scoring is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it takes some pressure off the students and accounts for the fact that any test is just a snapshot of one performance on one day in a student’s life.
It’s a curse because it means that many test takers will take the test three, four or even five times. We want to be clear that it doesn’t mean that YOUR son or daughter has to take the test that many times. But sometimes a student can feel at a disadvantage if they don’t.
That is why focusing on the score that your son or daughter needs to make them competitive for the right schools for them is so important. It is very easy to lose perspective and get caught up in the hype that can surround test scores.
Not all schools super score. So be sure to check the website of your target schools.