Once a common component of college applications for first-time freshmen, the SAT and ACT college entrance exams have experienced major upheaval in recent years.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, many schools eliminated test requirements or switched to test-optional policies to accommodate disruptions to learning and testing. However, as recent data has shown that these changes might be negatively impacting students, schools are starting to reverse their COVID-era testing policies and once again require applicants to submit standardized test scores with their applications.

These changes have created a confusing environment for college-bound students regarding whether they should take the SAT or ACT and how to navigate schools’ testing policies. With expert insight from Blanca Villagomez, a program counselor and coordinator at UC-Irvine, this article reviews different types of college admissions testing policies and provides guidance to help students plan their standardized testing strategy for college admissions.

Types of College Admissions Testing Policies

Students currently researching potential colleges will likely encounter a variety of different standardized testing policies for undergraduates, as schools evaluate the best way to assess applicants and select their incoming class. If you’re unclear about a school’s standardized testing policy, contact the school’s admissions office to speak to an admissions counselor for the most accurate information.

The most common college admissions testing policies include:

  • Required: All applicants must submit standardized test scores. Most schools accept both SAT and ACT scores, although students should confirm this before scheduling their test. Depending on the school and program, there may be minimum score requirements for admission. Schools may also set a minimum score threshold for scholarship consideration or course placement.
  • Test-Optional: These schools will consider SAT or ACT scores if students submit them as part of their application, but they’re not required. While a lack of SAT or ACT scores won’t impact a student’s admission decision, some test-optional schools may still consider test scores when it comes to awarding merit-based scholarships or other financial aid.
  • Test-Flexible: Similar to test-optional schools, test-flexible institutions allow students to submit standardized test scores if they want, but don’t require them. Test-flexible schools also consider a broader range of exam scores, including International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) scores, which test-optional schools don’t use in admissions decisions.
  • Test-Blind: These institutions (also known as test-free schools) don’t consider standardized test scores at all, even if students submit them. Instead, these schools focus on other application materials, including high school transcripts, letters of recommendation, essays, and interviews to evaluate applicants’ preparedness for college.

When considering different colleges, it’s important to remember that testing policies don’t necessarily reflect the quality of education an institution provides. Says Villagomez, “Standardized testing requirements can provide insights into the school’s values system and its approach to measuring academic success and readiness for college, but there are many factors to consider when assessing the quality of education a college or university can provide.”

“To make an informed decision about where to apply, I recommend researching a university’s website, attending informational sessions, and reading about the latest news surrounding that institution,” Villagomez says.

Should I Submit SAT or ACT Scores to Test-Optional Schools?

As of 2023, approximately 1,900 post-secondary institutions in the U.S. implemented test-optional policies. If you’re considering applying to any of these schools, here are some tips to help you decide whether to submit SAT or ACT scores.

When to submit SAT or ACT scores to test-optional schools

“A test-optional policy can offer students the flexibility to make an informed decision based on their circumstances and strengths,” Villagomez says. “For example, if the scores complement and enhance a student’s overall application, I recommend that the student consider submitting them.”

Although test-optional schools likely won’t have minimum SAT or ACT score requirements, students can use averages to determine whether their scores are strong enough to enhance their application. For students entering college in 2022, the average SAT score was 1050 (out of 1600), while the average ACT composite score was 19.8 (out of 36). Scores at or above these levels will likely be considered competitive by a school’s admissions office.

Submitting SAT or ACT scores can also benefit students with a weaker academic record or who didn’t attend an academically rigorous high school. For students in these situations, strong SAT or ACT scores can demonstrate their intellectual capabilities and preparedness for a college environment.

When to withhold SAT or ACT scores from test-optional schools

Students whose SAT or ACT scores are below average and who have an otherwise strong, well-rounded application likely won’t benefit from submitting their standardized test scores to test-optional schools. In this situation, students should ensure they meet all of the institution’s admissions criteria, including minimum high school GPA, to give themselves the best chance at acceptance.

“I understand some students who choose to withhold test scores can feel apprehensive about missing an opportunity to showcase their competitiveness,” Villagomez says. “If this is the case, I recommend students use their writing statements to leverage their other academic abilities and highlight the factors that impacted their test performance.”

How to Prepare a College Application Without SAT or ACT Scores

Many schools have adopted test-optional, test-flexible, or test-blind policies because they recognize that test scores aren’t always the most accurate measurement of a student’s success or abilities, Villagomez says. She adds, “These institutions use a holistic assessment because they recognize the importance of diverse backgrounds, life circumstances, and systemic barriers that can shape educational trajectories. This evaluation process is unique to every student since they each have their own goals, needs, and interests.”

Therefore, when preparing a college application without standardized test scores, it’s important for students to showcase all the strengths and experiences they bring as potential students.

“I recommend that students emphasize other components of their applications to showcase their academic achievements, extracurricular activities, personal narratives, and resilience in the face of adversity,” Villagomez says. “For students navigating systemic barriers out of their control, they can use the personal statement as an opportunity to highlight how their educational trajectories have been impacted. Additionally, resources such as college counselors, college preparedness programs, or test preparation materials — available online or in public libraries — can help students feel more prepared for the application process.”

Having a strong high school academic record can show colleges that students are prepared for the rigors of college courses. Students should also request letters of recommendation from teachers, coaches, counselors, or employers who can speak to various skills and strengths.

SAT or ACT — Which Test Should I Take?

When deciding whether to take the SAT or ACT (or both), it’s important for students to consider the specifics of both tests, as one may be better suited to their strengths and needs.

The SAT consists of two sections. The Reading and Writing section consists of short reading passages followed by multiple-choice questions representing one of four content areas — Craft and Structure, Information and Ideas, Standard English Conventions, and Expression of Ideas. The Math section includes questions related to four areas of math — Algebra, Advanced Math, Problem-Solving and Data Analysis, and Geometry and Trigonometry. Both sections are scored on an 800 scale, with a maximum overall score of 1600.

The ACT consists of four different subjects — Reading, English, Math, and Science, with an optional Writing component. The four main sections are multiple-choice, while the writing section has one prompt. Each section is scored on a scale of 1-36, with students receiving a composite score that is the average of the four scores, rounded to the nearest whole number.

Researching college admissions requirements is key to deciding which test to take, Villagomez says.

“Fully review the requirements of the institutions you plan to apply to, as you may need to take both tests, depending on the varying criteria of the schools you’re considering,” she says. “Taking both tests can be advantageous if it aligns with your strengths and resources. It can allow you to submit the highest test scores out of the two depending on the college requirements.”

Speaking to a trusted college counselor or mentor can also help students make an informed decision about which test to take and how to prepare.

When to Take the SAT or ACT

“Generally, students are encouraged to take their first round of SAT or ACT exams in the fall of their junior year,” Villagomez says. “Ideally, the goal is to take it more than once to assess their score and areas of improvement. However, not every student can take it more than once, especially since the test preparation phase can be costly.”

Villagomez recommends that students start by visiting the SAT and ACT websites to determine when the tests are offered throughout the year. This will help students identify an ideal test date that doesn’t conflict with other commitments and give them a timeline for preparation with SAT or ACT prep courses.

“These tests require a high level of discipline, preparation, and technique to master,” Villagomez says. “Students who are not strong test takers may experience more challenges, so creating a realistic schedule to practice questions and take mock tests online can boost their confidence.”

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