How to Apply to Test Optional Colleges


Test Optional Colleges blog illustration

Even before the coronavirus pandemic began upending the way we’ve always done things, standardized tests—once a stalwart of the college application process—had begun falling out of favor. These are known as Test optional colleges.

Since Bowdoin College stopped requiring aptitude exams for entrance five decades ago, the movement away from SATs and ACTs has been slowly, but steadily, picking up steam.

That is, until the spring of 2020, when testing dates started evaporating from calendars over concerns about spreading the novel coronavirus. By the fall of 2021, more than half of the universities and colleges in the United States will be test optional. Elmhurst University is piloting a test optional program for the 2020-21 application year.

How Does that Change My College Application?

It’s not likely you’ll be saying goodbye to tests altogether. After all, most high school juniors and seniors will still take at least one standardized test. It still makes sense to get an idea of how you perform under that kind of pressure. And you might surprise yourself!

Remember, high scores can still be submitted—and can give you a boost, especially if you want to be considered for certain merit-based scholarships.

But if you don’t believe that your test scores truly reflect your abilities, you have options. Many admissions departments have lost confidence in the ability of tests to predict campus success. Your performance in high school is more likely a better indicator of how your college career will go.

So, colleges want to know what types of courses you are taking and how you’ve challenged yourself and performed in them as you prepare for higher education.

Overall, we look for the academic story of a student. We try to get a picture of how the student successfully moved through their educational career.

— Christine Grenier, Senior Director of Admission at Elmhurst University.

Accentuate the Positive

If you’ve shown a lot of growth since the start of high school, find a way to highlight that. Were you a standout on the debate team? Were you a fencing club founder? Did you rack up hours volunteering? All worth a mention.

Consider this: A test-optional college or university usually treats test scores as an additive to the student’s profile; without the scores, admission offices give more weight to factors such as grades, essay-writing, letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities.

Think about bolstering your application by submitting extra letters of recommendation or portfolios, if that’s allowed by the school. For example, you might include writing samples or research projects, design work you’ve done or problems you’ve solved. Think in three dimensions.

Basically, test-optional colleges—and all colleges—are looking for meaningful ways to compare you with the rest of the applicant pool.

Other Things to Know About Test Optional Colleges

It might be temporary. Some schools have adopted a test-optional pilot in response to the uncertainty of the coronavirus. Those schools could go back to requiring tests once the crisis has passed, or they could modify their requirements.

“Test flexible” is different. “Test flexible” means just that: You don’t have to take the ACT or SAT, but another test, such as an SAT subject test, an International Baccalaureate or an Advanced Placement exam can be submitted instead. Meanwhile, “test blind” means that scores won’t be considered at that school even if you submit them.

You can include your scores. If you knocked your test out of the park, go ahead and submit! You should show off anything that makes your profile shine, and that includes a strong SAT or ACT performance. Benchmark your exam by finding data on your school’s average test scores.

Understand all application requirements. This advice always holds true. Different schools require different things. For instance, some majors or scholarships have their own set of prerequisites. Make sure you check all the boxes, and, if you have questions, seek advice from admission counselors. That’s what they’re there for!

Learn More About Elmhurst University

Our admission counselors can help you through the application process, whether you decide to apply test-optional or not. Request more information today!

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Published Oct. 26, 2020

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