SAT-Optional Schools Not Such a Great Option After All

Schools that say they're optional may wind up using them for merit scholarships or class placement

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SAT season is upon us, which may have some high school students wondering if they should be looking into the growing list of “test optional” colleges (roughly 850 schools, according to Many prestigious colleges and universities including Bates, Bowdoin, American University, Sarah Lawrence, Smith and Wake Forest now do not require SATs. The movement has even spawned a subcategory, known as “test flexible,” which allows a student to decide whether to send an AP or ACT score instead of SAT results.

But that doesn’t mean that high schoolers should forgo the drudgery and anxiety of trying to do well on SATs or any other standardized test unless they have to. For while test-optional policies convey the impression that colleges would like to diversify their applicant pools, they are not always as noble as they sound. Moreover, a school can identify itself as “test optional” for admissions purposes but then require test scores when it comes to awarding scholarships or determining class placement.

(MORE: The SATs Should Bring Back Analogies)

Critics argue that test-optional colleges are simply gaming the system to gain status in the rankings, most notably the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which have created a frenzy of colleges vying to move up in prestige. A test-optional policy means more applicants, which means more applicants to reject, which means appearing more “selective” as far as the rankings go. Also, a test-optional school’s SAT average will be artificially inflated because applicants who do submit scores have higher scores — 100 to 150 points better, on average — than applicants who don’t.

There’s also the fact that “test optional” means different things to different schools. Students with low SAT scores may be hoping for the chance to be considered as a whole person rather than a test score, but it’s not always that simple. There are policy nuances, as when colleges are test-optional for students with a certain GPA or state schools are test-optional for in-state applicants but not for applicants from out of state or abroad.

On the flip side, there’s a chance for some students with high test scores to work the system to their advantage because the applicant pool at test-optional schools is presumably filled with score-free applications. At a test-optional college, high scores might even mitigate the consequences of a low GPA.

There is no doubt that one test should not determine an applicant’s chances, but in 2009, the College Board began offering “Score Choice,” which allows students to decide whether to send SAT scores from a certain test day or, if they had a particularly bad morning, omit the scores for that day. And yes, there are definitely other limitations to the SAT’s ability to capture a whole person and certainly inequalities whereby those who can afford expensive test prep and multiple testings can gain an advantage. But for most students, “test optional” winds up complicating their choices rather than expanding them.

MORE: For the First Time, SAT Test Gets Canceled in an Entire Country