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Last Updated On: August 3rd, 2021

In the “before times,” the main question about college admissions tests used to be, “How can I do well on this test?” Now, the question is, “Should I even take this test?”

Over 1500 schools decided to go test-blind or test-optional during the pandemic, and many of them are choosing to stay that way, at least for the near future. At the same time, making the admissions process (arguably) easier has made gaining admission to a highly selective college even more difficult, as applications soared and admissions rates plunged this past cycle.

Before we get into whether or not you should take the test, it’s important to understand the difference between “test blind” and “test optional” admissions. “Test blind” means that schools do not consider standardized test scores in the admissions process, even if you take the test and are happy with your score. While there used to be only a few schools that were test blind, such as Hampshire College, more schools—including the entire University of California system—have recently joined this group. US News and World Report used to exclude test blind schools from its rankings, but in September 2020, it decided to include them. With this change, it’s likely that more schools may go test blind in the future.

By contrast, “test optional” schools will consider standardized test scores if you submit them, but they don’t require them. In this case, the test score is not an essential part of your application, but a good score can definitely help you get in. One more category, “test flexible” schools, will allow you to choose from a wider variety of tests than just the SAT or ACT, such as submitting AP test scores instead.

So should you even take an admissions test? Like many aspects of the college admissions process, the answer isn’t the same for every student, but there are some guidelines.

You should definitely take the SAT or ACT if:

  • You’re applying to a school that requires the test.
  • You’re applying for one or more scholarships that require the test.
  • You can earn a competitive score with little or no preparation.
  • Someone from the college to which you’re applying tells you that it would benefit you to have a test score, even if it’s not officially required.

You should probably take the SAT or ACT if:

  • You’re applying to competitive schools and/or scholarships that are “test optional,” and you can achieve a strong score with a reasonable amount of preparation. In the highly competitive world of college admissions, one more strength on your application can be the difference between acceptance and rejection, even if it’s “optional.”
  • You have a lower-than-average GPA for the schools to which you’re applying, or you have weaknesses in other aspects of your application. Without standardized tests, everything you include on your application is weighted more heavily. A high test score can balance out less-than-stellar grades or a lack of extracurricular activities.

You should probably not take the SAT or ACT if:

  • You’re only applying to “test blind” schools. Just make sure you’re not going to change your mind about where you apply before you decide to ignore the tests!
  • You’re scoring low on your practice tests and aren’t seeing much improvement. Most students score about the same or slightly better on the real test as they do in practice, so don’t expect miracles. If you just can’t crack into the competitive score range, it might be better to leave the test score off your application.
  • Your test score is significantly less impressive than the rest of your application. If you have a stellar GPA, lots of challenging coursework, meaningful community service, outstanding extracurricular accomplishments, and a low test score is the one thing dragging down your application, it’s probably better to leave it off.
  • You would require extensive test preparation to get a competitive score AND you have other activities to do during that time that might make your application exceptional. If you would need to devote several hours per week to raising your test score and at the same time you’re busy leading a program for homeless youth or writing a bestselling book series or competing in the National Debate Championships, then you are probably better off focusing on what makes your application unique.

So if you do take the test, when should you prepare for and take it?

If you’re a contender for a National Merit Scholarship, you should consider beginning preparations for the PSAT (which is very similar to the SAT) the summer before your junior year. This will help you to earn a competitive score on the PSAT, which is usually offered in October or January of junior year. If a National Merit Scholarship doesn’t seem likely, you probably still want to begin preparing for your first test in summer before or fall of your junior year, though you might choose the ACT instead of the SAT. This leaves time for a second or third test in the summer or late fall of senior year to try to further improve your score.

If you’re not sure whether the SAT or ACT is worth your time and energy, the best course of action is to take an official practice test to get your “baseline” score. If you’re close to a competitive score, it’s probably worth your time to do some test preparation so you have one more boost to your application. A little strategy practice and concept review can go a long way in helping you earn a score that you’ll be proud to share with any school, test optional or not.

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