The Real Role of Tests in Your College Application

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Although colleges encourage applicants to submit admission test scores, most don’t require all students to do so in every instance. This flexibility has led to considerable confusion over the role of tests in today's college applications. College admissions officers give the most weight and importance to your high school grades and whether you're challenging yourself. But even in the new test-optional world, taking the SAT and other high school tests for college could benefit your application strategy. In short, there's no downside to taking admission tests.

What Are College Admission Tests?

You may know college admission tests by name─the SAT and ACT. These tests are designed to help colleges evaluate how ready students are for college-level work.

How Do Colleges Use Test Scores?

Admission tests apply a common standard to everyone, helping colleges evaluate and compare the preparation of students who go to different high schools. New test-optional policies are changing how colleges use test scores in application decisions.

Some schools are test blind. That means that college admission tests don't impact the admissions decision in any way. Even if submitted, they aren't considered.

Other colleges are test optional. If a college or university has a test-optional admissions policy, that means they allow all or some applicants to decide whether to submit SAT or ACT scores as part of their application. It doesn’t mean that schools aren’t interested in seeing all applicants’ test scores, but if a student doesn’t submit their scores, it won’t be counted against them in the application review.

Many schools still use test scores for placement and scholarship consideration. Even if they don't play a part in admissions decisions, admission tests are still important. Policies continue to evolve. Checking with colleges about their testing requirements is crucial before you apply. Here are 8 more things to know about how colleges use admission tests.

What Else Do Colleges Consider?

College admissions officers try to get a complete picture of who you are, what you'll bring to their campus, and how well you might do there. They look at many components of your application besides your test scores, such as your:

  • High school grades
  • High school courses
  • Academic rigor
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Recommendation letters
  • Application essays

In fact, these other elements─especially your grades and the classes you've taken─are usually the most important factors. Colleges want to see if you've challenged yourself and built a solid academic foundation.

How Important Are Scores to Colleges?

The importance of test scores in the admissions process varies from college to college and depends on an institution's unique admissions approach and policies. If you have questions about how a particular college uses test scores, check its online admissions portal, or contact its admissions office.

Should I take a college admission test?

It's best practice to take college admission tests for college entry, even if you're applying for test-optional schools. Doing so keeps your options open. It's better to take the tests and have those scores available should you need them. Furthermore, exam scores might be necessary for, among other things, placement, academic counseling, and scholarship consideration. Even if you don't consider standardized testing to be your top strength, you’ve nothing to lose by taking the SAT.

How do I know if I should submit my test score if my college is test optional?

Test scores can still impact your application for test-optional schools. Generally, submitting scores is a good idea if you believe they can strengthen your application. But if the scores are low, it may be better not to include them. Consult with a counselor or admissions officer if you're unsure. You could ask an admissions officer "Under what circumstances would it be wise for me to submit my test scores?"

Should I submit my SAT score if the college I'm applying to is test optional?

If your test scores accurately represent your abilities, it's worth submitting them to test-optional schools. It can be helpful to review the profile for colleges you’re interested in applying to, and check that college’s last first-year class. If your SAT score matches or exceeds that average, submitting your score can work in your favor. Your SAT score could help you stand out among a sea of applicants, qualify you for scholarships, and offset a lower GPA.