What Does Test Optional Really Mean?

Written by: Melissa Brock
Updated: 11/30/20

As exams closed, more than one million students have not taken the ACT or SAT due to COVID-19. Testing has resumed — with social distancing, face coverings and limited seating. 

It’s changed the face of in-person testing.

What is Test Optional?

According to FairTest, a group that is critical of college admissions tests, 1,050 colleges had implemented a test-optional policy by September 2019. 

Test Optional, Test Flexible and Test Blind

Just like you can find several types of admission, you can also find a few different types of testing options, and we’ll go over a few here: test optional, test flexible and test blind.

Test Optional

Test optional means you get to decide whether you want to submit test scores with the application. Most test-optional schools consider SAT and ACT scores if they are submitted, in addition to:

  • Student essays
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Grades
  • High school and any community college or other college coursework

Test optional gives you a chance to purposefully craft your application. In other words, test optional means you can offer other ways to present yourself. Maybe you get really creative and submit a video or even a short story to supplement your application!

No matter whether you submit the ACT or SAT or not, you gain more control over what you submit to colleges.

Above all else, remember this: Colleges will want as much information about you as possible. Your grades, essays, extracurricular activities and achievements must be excellent so the colleges will want to admit you.

What Schools are Test Optional? 

More than two-thirds of 4-year colleges and universities in the U.S. will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores for fall 2021 admission. In fact, Fairtest lists 1,650-plus accredited four-year colleges and universities with ACT/SAT optional testing policies for fall 2021 admission. Taking a look at this list is one of the best ways to find a complete list of testing options throughout the U.S.

The federal government counts 2,330 bachelor-degree granting institutions.

Test Flexible 

A test-flexible policy requires you to send test scores but you can also submit other test scores in place of the SAT or ACT. A  few examples of tests you can send in:

  1. SAT Subject Test
  2. International Baccalaureate exam
  3. Advanced Placement test


There’s no right or wrong answer here — you can submit any test you want. No admission office will fault you if you decide to submit these in lieu of an ACT or SAT score.

Test Blind

This is likely the easiest to understand: Colleges with test-blind admission policies do not want you to send test scores at all. 

A college’s website might sound something like this: “We will not review standardized test scores (SAT or ACT) for general admission and merit scholarship consideration starting with applicants for the fall of 2021.”

Ultimately, know that colleges can do a lot to admit you without your ACT or SAT score, so don’t worry if you’re unwilling to take the test due to COVID-19 or want to take advantage of a school that doesn’t require you to take the ACT or SAT. Check out a few more things to note:

  • Some colleges require test scores for out-of-state or international students.
  • Some schools may ask you to take a placement exam prior to being placed into specific classes during your first year.
  • Some may ask for additional materials including scientific research or additional recommendation letters.

Can You Still Get Scholarships without ACT/SAT Scores?

In the past, scholarships were wrapped up into the ACT and SAT. But how does not taking the  ACT or SAT help you get scholarships? 

  • Many schools offer initial scholarships based on your grade point average alone.
  • Certain scholarships may require ACT/SAT score or an additional application. 
  • You can still qualify for need-based scholarships by filing the FAFSA or the CSS Profile.

However, it’s extremely important to check with the colleges and universities you’re interested in to learn how each college offers scholarships.

How to Decide Whether to Take the ACT or SAT 

You’ve got some choices to make. Does it mean you jump on the bandwagon and not take a test or do you go all in, with No. 2 pencils and masks?

So, given all that information, should you take the SAT or ACT? The question of the year!

How to Decide Whether to Go Test Optional

Not sure whether you want to go test optional — or whether you should? Here’s how to weigh the pros and cons.

Step 1: Look at each college’s website.

First, look online. You may quickly figure out that all schools you apply to are kind of in the same pool — all test optional or all test flexible.

What do they want to see instead of your test scores? Class rank, weighted and unweighted GPA? Make sure you look for all the details and all the requirements.

As you find out whether the schools on your list require test optional or not, keep in mind that if you’re a sophomore, the policy might change by the time you’re a senior.

Step 2: Reach out to schools you’re interested in.

Still have questions about whether it’s in your best interest to take the ACT or SAT? Get on the phone with an admission counselor and ask questions like this:

  1. Will I have a better chance of getting admitted if I take the ACT or SAT?
  2. What other things can I submit to get in? 
  3. Should I include letters of recommendation or additional personal statements? Anything else?
  4. What are your exact policies for testing? Are they based on major?


If you are a sophomore or junior, keep checking back with the institution. If you’re a senior, ask the college’s honest answer as to whether you should take the test or not, particularly if the college you’re considering is test flexible.

Ask their honest opinion based on your profile. “I have a 3.3 gpa and I see that your profile shows that most students have a 3.5 gpa. Will taking the SAT or ACT help me get admitted or not?”

Colleges want to be as transparent as possible, so ask these very specific questions. Most of the time, they’ll preface with, “I can’t make any promises, but…”

It’ll still give you some information to work with.

Step 3: Sign up for one of the tests.

Have you decided it’s best to go ahead and take one of the tests — either the ACT or SAT? 

It might be hard to get a seat. You might need to take the test in the next town over or arrange for an alternate test date. Do your best to figure out where your options are. You can call the test centers to get an understanding of each.

Step 4: Get your ducks in a row if you decide not to take a standardized test. 

If you decide not to take the test, make sure your grades meet colleges’ requirements. If you decide to take the test, research which test makes the most sense for you. It’s generally recommended that you take the ACT or SAT by spring of your junior year. 

If you feel the need to take a prep class, take a look at a few prep classes in the area and find out which ones would be good options. Determine the costs and whether the class will meet over Zoom or in person and whether you feel comfortable with one or the other.

Step 5: Make a final decision.

You may not find it easy to make a final decision about whether or not to take the ACT or SAT, particularly if you’re a junior or even a sophomore in high school. Your best bet is to wait it out if you’re younger to see whether college policies change.

However, seniors must make a decision based on colleges’ requirements, their comfort level with testing and other factors. 

No matter what, make sure you consider all factors and choose the right one for you!

Think Ahead: Test Optional

There’s no right or wrong answer here. If you feel that you could boost your credentials by taking the ACT or SAT, by all means, take it. 

The only “wrong” move you could make is not taking it when the college specifically asks for the tests. (In a lot of cases, you won’t encounter that.)

Who knows what the future holds and whether sophomores or juniors will face the same challenges? Find out more every step of the way.

The best thing you can do is get to know the admission counselors from the colleges on your list and start asking questions now.

Learn more about how COVID-19 affected college admission and loan availability. You can also learn more about college visit policies through the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), especially whether colleges are open to the public for visits and group visit information and more.