If you’ve been researching colleges, you’ve likely seen the words “test-optional” floating around. Test-optional admissions is a new concept for most students, and you’re sure to have questions about what exactly it means for you. Is taking the ACT or SAT really optional? Are the tests optional for everyone or just some people? Should you still take the test?
For many of us who grew up thinking that the SAT or ACT was essential to college admissions, the concept of applying test-optional is understandably confusing. That’s why we compiled a guide to test-optional admissions, including advice on how to decide what’s right for you.
What Test-Optional Admissions Means for You
If a school or program has a test-optional admissions process, each applicant gets to choose whether or not to submit their ACT or SAT scores. In other words, submitting your test scores is not a requirement for admissions. Usually, this policy applies broadly to all applicants. Still, you should always check the policy details to see if the school recommends or requires that certain types of students submit their scores for admissions. For example, some schools may not require test scores for admissions, but they still prefer or require test scores for certain scholarships or acceptance into an honors program.
If you decide to send your test scores to a test-optional school, the admissions committee will consider them when making an admissions decision. (Test-optional schools differ from test-blind schools, where test scores are completely ignored by admissions) With test-optional schools, it’s up to you to determine whether your scores will add to or detract from your application, but a lack of scores won’t count against you. If you choose not to submit your scores, the admissions committee will put more weight on the other pieces of your application, so you’ll want to make sure the rest of your application effectively highlights your strengths.
The Rising Popularity of Test-Optional Admissions
Why are more schools going test-optional? One major reason has been the global pandemic and its impact on students’ ability to take, retake, and even prepare for standardized tests. Yet other factors are also at play, and many schools had been considering or using test-optional admissions before 2020. This is because making test scores optional can provide more equal admissions opportunities for those who are unable to take (or retake) the SAT or ACT test for any reason, including limited access to testing sites.
Test-optional admissions also helps to level the playing field for students who can’t afford or lack access to tutoring and test prep classes. Because standardized tests alone do not fully reflect a student’s abilities, talents, or potential, many educators advocate for a holistic analysis of every applicant—an analysis that may or may not include test scores.
How to Decide What’s Best for You
If the school or schools you’re applying to have test-optional admissions, there are two main questions to consider. The first is whether you should take one of the standardized college admissions tests and, second, if you do take the test, whether to share your scores.
To test or not to test?
If taking a test is an available and affordable option and you feel safe doing so, taking the ACT or SAT can help you make an informed decision on what to include in your application. If cost is a concern, free study books and test prep resources can be found online, at your local library, or even through your high school. Many states already automatically cover exam costs for public school students, and, in other states, select students may qualify for SAT or ACT fee waivers that eliminate exam registration costs.
When signing up for the test, be careful to select the option to see your scores before you determine whether to submit them to colleges. That will also help you to decide whether you want to retake the test to see if you can improve your performance.
To submit your scores or apply without them?
After you have your scores, there’s another question to answer—and this one can feel trickier. Should you share your scores or apply without them? Remember, this decision is entirely yours, and what is best varies on a case by case basis. In general, if you have high test scores, submitting them can potentially bolster your application.
You might choose to submit your ACT/SAT scores if:
- You believe your test scores accurately reflect your academic ability and potential and will strengthen or round out your application.
- Your GPA or another aspect of your application isn’t as strong as you’d like but your test scores are on the high end.
- You are an applicant from an unaccredited home school program. (Because colleges have less means by which to assess home school students, test scores can provide valuable additional information)
- Your test scores are at or above the average scores of a school’s most recent incoming class – information that you can usually find online.
You might choose to apply test-optional if:
- You have been unable to take the ACT/SAT for any reason.
- Your scores do not meet your expectations or effectively demonstrate your abilities and potential. (Maybe you experienced high anxiety during the test or were unable to retake the test and improve your score)
- You want to direct focus to the parts of your application that better showcase your skills and abilities, like a strong GPA, rigorous academic coursework, extracurricular involvement, and a thoughtful essay.
Tips for Applying Test-Optional
If you decide to apply test-optional, it’s especially important to spend time compiling a holistic application that represents you well. Without your test scores to review, admissions committee members will more closely consider things like the courses you took in high school and the activities you participated in. For those extracurriculars, try to speak to why those activities matter to you, how those experiences have shaped you, and how you, in turn, have impacted your community, schools, or peers through your involvement. (Learn more about what colleges are looking for in extracurricular activities)
Your personal essay and short answer questions will also serve not only to demonstrate your writing skills but also to speak to your strengths as a student and the attributes and interests that make you stand out as a unique individual.
Finally, be strategic about getting a letter of recommendation. Think about where your application could benefit from extra support or proof. What would help you make your case that you’ll be great for your dream school? Once you’ve thought about that, find a teacher, coach, activity leader, or other adult who can speak to that area. Ask them to write a targeted letter that provides that extra validation your application needs.
Applying to the University of Pittsburgh
If you’re interested in applying to the University of Pittsburgh, our campuses have a test-optional admissions policy in place for all first-year students through Fall 2025. We encourage students to see themselves as the authors of their own stories, and each applicant will receive a comprehensive individual review, where those who submit test scores and those who apply test-optional receive equal consideration.
Applying test-optional to Pitt will not impact your likelihood of acceptance, financial aid or scholarships awarded, admission to our Frederick Honors College, or Guaranteed Admissions Program acceptance in any way.
However you decide to apply, you won’t be alone in that choice. We’re glad to see applicants to Pitt choosing what is right for them, with many of our incoming students having applied test-optional.
To learn more about test-optional admissions at Pitt, visit admissions.pitt.edu/test-optional. You can also connect with us on social media and learn about all of the different ways to explore life at Pitt!