Test Optional Tips and Tricks

Many star athletes and significant donor families (donations above 1 million in the last five years) have found that standardized tests were not needed for their admissions.

#1 Understand School’s Motivation

The appearance of exclusivity, rather than the development of an intellectually and spiritually enriching environment for students, is frequently what drives the adoption of test-optional policies. Yale’s application rate, for instance, went up 33-percent this year, and its introduction of a test-optional application must have been largely responsible. And, as noted in the New York Times, “with low scores out of the tabulation, the average test score – reported to U.S. News & World Report for its all-important rankings – rises”. New York University is another helpful case study in a willfully misleading test-optional policy. The 85,000 NYU applicants for the fall of 2018 were not required to submit test scores, but of the 6,700 students who enrolled, 4,277 submitted SAT scores and 1,796 submitted ACT scores. This allowed the university to boast that this incoming class was their “most selective in history,” having neatly cut their acceptance rate in half from what it had been in 2015 (from 31% to 15%).

#2 Explain Your Circumstances

Admissions officers are more likely to consider an application without test scores from underprivileged students who faced nearly impossible obstacles. Consider the story of JoEllen Soucier: her parents never received a high school education, her father disappeared when she was five, and when she was sixteen she was without a home at all. Thanks to her resolution and to financial aid, JoEllen went on to earn “a bachelor’s degree in business, two master’s degrees and is well on her way to earning her doctorate in higher education.” For students in similar positions of financial hardship, or ones who have, say, a documented learning difference, a test-optional application can be a good choice. Of course, many of the largest and most direct scholarships are granted through ACT or SAT scores. If you need money for college, try and figure out how much your current scores could get you. Check out “How Much Money is One ACT Point Worth” to learn more about this!

#3 Analyze Your Score

In deciding whether a standardized test score will benefit one’s application, it is helpful to look at the school’s admission data if it’s available. The middle 50 percent of the accepted students for Princeton’s class of 2024, for example, scored 740-800 on SAT Math, 710-800 on SAT evidence-based Reading and Writing, and 32-36 on the ACT. A student whose test scores fall comfortably within those ranges could only benefit from sending it in with her application, especially at a selective school like Princeton. As Jed Applerouth has speculated, “Students who do have strong scores are probably going to stand out a little more in this year,” since many other applicants will provide no scores at all. But if a student’s score falls significantly below this average, it would of course be better not to let the school see it, though one would then be relying heavily on a high-school record, including extracurriculars, which would need to be exemplary. The decision to omit standardized test scores would make sense only for students with a disparity between their school performance and their testing performance (e.g. a student with straight A’s and a 16 on the ACT).

#4 Think About Finances

There are a host of scholarships given directly for ACT® or SAT® scores. That is not to say that you cannot earn scholarships without an ACT® or SAT®, however, these tests can serve as a very easy way to earn extra scholarship dollars. Here at Granite, we calculated that for each point your ACT score increases you can expect an averages scholarship increase of $8,451!

#5 Analyze Your Grades

In the absence of standardized test scores, colleges and universities will rely more heavily on your high school GPA. Accordingly, if your GPA is very high and your test scores are markedly low, it might be a good idea to consider applying test-optional. The table below offers a general comparison between high school GPA and ACT. This is based on an unweighted 4.0 GPA scale.

ACT Score

GPA (4.0 Unweighted)





























#6 Identify “Student Type”

If you are in the small portion of students who have received likely letters (or another form of early admissions acknowledgment), it can be worth reaching out to the admissions office and inquiring about the need for standardized tests. Many star athletes and significant donor families (donations above 1 million in the last five years) have found that standardized tests were not needed for their admissions.


Another consideration to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to take a standardized test is one’s future career. Many employers, especially when dealing with job applicants who are entering the workforce right after college, will ask for standardized test scores. Though there is debate around whether SAT and ACT scores can predict job performance, they will likely be required for careers in finance and consulting.

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