College entrance exam requirements have been changing. Confirm testing requirements at the schools where you plan to apply. For information on test availability, check the SAT® and ACT® sites.

Colleges that don’t require the ACT® and SAT® are nothing new. There were always schools that allowed students to opt out of submitting test scores, and that group was growing each year. Recently, though, nearly all schools have waived their requirements in response to the limited testing availability due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Which raises an important question: If you’re able to take the SAT or ACT, should you?

Does Test-Optional Really Mean Optional?

It’s common to worry that not submitting test scores will be held against you in the admissions process. Traditionally, schools that go test-optional are earnest in their policy. However, Laurie Kopp, president of One Stop College Counseling, says colleges going test-optional in response to the pandemic can be divided into two groups: the truly test-optional and the reluctantly test-optional. “Since many of my families are trying for colleges that are, in my opinion, ‘reluctantly test-optional,’ I’ve advised students to take the test [when possible],” she says. “If they don’t do well, they don’t have to show their scores. But they could try.”

When Is It a Smart Idea to Take the ACT or SAT?

It’s a high-school graduation requirement: Some states or schools require a minimum test score to graduate from high school, although many paused the requirement in response to the pandemic. For example, Ohio required threshold scores to graduate but waived the requirement for the class of 2020. Be sure to check with your school before opting out.

You’re pursuing merit- or need-based aid: Many scholarships are tied to standardized test scores, either formally or informally, so a high score can give you a leg up for both merit- and need-based aid. Allen Koh, CEO of Cardinal Education, recommends that students hoping to secure scholarships should take the tests when possible. He especially encourages students who qualify for fee waivers to take the tests because there’s no financial investment and there’s potential for a financial reward. If you’re unsure if test scores are considered in the aid you’re targeting, it’s best to contact the admissions office or scholarship-granting organization.

You plan to play a college sport: The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has waived its minimum-score requirement for the 2020–21 academic year. However, as of August 2020, the change only applies to students who graduated from high school in 2020. Anyone graduating in 2021 should plan to take the ACT or SAT for now. Beyond fulfilling the NCAA requirement, your score can give you an advantage if you’re hoping for an athletic scholarship.

Your score will enhance your application: “For anyone with a lower GPA than their true ability, a great test score shows them in a much better light,” says Koh. “Students who may get a weak letter of recommendation, those who are introverted or do not have a lot of extracurricular engagement … can benefit by getting a great test score.” This also applies if you were homeschooled or are applying to a highly selective college and didn’t attend a competitive high school.

When Is It Not Worthwhile to Take the SAT or ACT?

Your practice score is low: Scores that undermine your high school performance usually aren’t worth submitting. “If your ACT or SAT scores are less than the 25th percentile for admitted students, do not submit them unless you need them for a scholarship or other requirement,” says Brian Stewart, president of BWS Education Consulting. Instead, it’s worth finding other ways to strengthen your application. Focus on an issue you are passionate about. You can showcase how you are finding solutions to problems you see in the world instead of spending hours preparing and relearning test material,” says Dana Watkins, founder of AZalgebra.

You’re worried about COVID-19: If you or a member of your family is in a high-risk group for COVID-19 and you’re worried about sitting for the test, it’s not worth taking it. Ultimately, scores are just one piece of the admissions pie: A good score will help you, but it’s not everything. “Be prepared to elaborate on why you were unable to take the ACT or SAT in your application,” says Stewart. Consider including a written statement about your decision. A thoughtful, well-written piece could tip the scales in your favor.

What’s Next for the SAT and ACT?

While the test-optional trend shows no signs of slowing down, it’s unlikely the exams will become extinct. The tests allow colleges to easily compare students from schools that vary wildly in academic rigor. They also provide colleges, especially ultra-selective ones that receive more applications than they can manage, a way to create a cutoff point.

But as the call for more equality in college admissions grows louder and schools like the University of California phase out scores, it’s likely that more colleges will go test-optional or even test-blind, meaning scores won’t be reviewed at all. “I believe we are going to see a long-term shift in college admission practices. I see personal statements and student projects becoming more of the forefront for admission requirements,” says Watkins.

Ultimately, the decision about testing is like many decisions in the college application process — a personal one. To make your choice, factor in the requirements of the schools and scholarships where you’re applying, your safety comfort levels, your application’s strengths and your testing abilities.

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