“Does my child need to take the SAT/ACT?”

FAQs for Test-Optional College Admission

Walking your child through the college admissions process can be overwhelming. From SAT/ACT test prep and admissions essays to college tours and financial aid applications, the to-do list is long and complex. When your child’s school of choice turns out to be test-optional, you may wonder if you can strike the SAT/ACT from your list altogether.

We understand the desire to simplify the process, but skipping out on these tests may not be the best option for your child. In this blog, we’re tackling your common questions about test-optional schools. Read on to learn what you can do to increase the chances of your child receiving that coveted acceptance letter! 

What does test-optional mean?

Before we get into the application process for test-optional schools, let’s get on the same page about what that term means. Each school your child applies to will fall into one of three categories:

  • Test-Required – These colleges require that you send in an SAT or ACT score in order to be considered for admission.
  • Test-Blind – These colleges do not look at SAT or ACT scores for their applicants. 
  • Test-Optional – These colleges leave it up to each applicant to decide whether or not to submit scores. 

While test-optional schools have been around for a while, we’re seeing more and more schools move in that direction, especially in the wake of COVID-19. Going test-optional is a way for colleges to offer flexibility after a year in which a global pandemic made it much more difficult to prep for and take the SAT/ACT.

Plus, going test-optional has greatly increased the number of applications those colleges and universities have received. Kids are throwing their hat into the ring at selective schools where they would not have otherwise applied because they didn’t have the test scores. With more applicants, colleges can be more selective and improve their admissions statistics, so we suspect many schools will stay test-optional for a while longer.

What do test-optional colleges consider when admitting applicants?

All colleges, test-optional or not, try to look at the big picture when reviewing applicants. Your child’s grades, strength of curriculum, extracurricular involvement, and performance in college-prep courses will all be taken into account along with other factors, especially essays. 

At a test-optional college, you get to decide whether or not the SAT/ACT tests will be part of that big picture review. If you opt not to submit the scores, they’ll simply consider the rest of your application in full without them. When you do submit them, however, they will weigh those into the decision. We don’t know how heavily test-optional schools weigh submitted scores, but we do know that they take them into consideration.

Whether or not your child should submit scores will depend on the overall strength of an application with or without the scores.

Should my child study for and take the SAT/ACT? 

We highly recommend that most students study for and take the SAT/ACT, even if every school on their list is test-optional. If they take the test and don’t like their score, they can simply not submit it. There’s no harm done.  However, if they take it and score well, they can strengthen their application and perhaps be admitted to a school where they would have otherwise been waitlisted or rejected.

(You may be asking, “No harm done?! What about all the lost time and effort?” If you’re worried a strong score is too out of reach to be worth the time and effort, we recommend starting with an inexpensive mock test. Then, you can review the results with our specialists and determine what a realistic goal is for your child.)

Right now, grades, especially in college-prep courses, are the most important factor on applications for college admissions. While extracurriculars have always played a role in applications, the challenges of the last year have eliminated or greatly reduced students’ abilities to participate in sports, clubs, jobs, and volunteer opportunities. With this in mind, there could be extra weight put on grades. A strong performance on the SAT/ACT can bring some balance back to the application and, to some extent, make up for less-than-stellar grades.

With this in mind, it’s a good idea to put a test prep plan into place for your child. If your child is a junior, it’s not too late to start studying for a test in the late spring, summer, or even fall. If your child is applying early decision or early action with a November 1st deadline, they can take the test as late as September or October of their senior year and still have the test make it on to their application.

Since grades are the most important application factor right now, your child may need space to finish their junior year strong first. They may need to use the summer for test prep and take the ACT in mid-July or the SAT at the end of August. Then, they can focus on current schoolwork without added interruption or stress. 

Note: The ideal timeline for test prep and test-taking will depend on your child’s particular courseload, needs, and plans. Click here to schedule a free consultation with our team, and we can help you chart a course that works best for your student.

Should my child submit his or her SAT/ACT scores to a test-optional school?

Once your child studies for the SAT/ACT and achieves his or her best-possible score, you’ll be able to decide whether or not to submit those scores to test-optional schools. Again, this will depend on how strong your child’s application is without vs. without those scores. As a general rule of thumb, we recommend submitting scores if they fall within the upper portion of the mid 50th percentile of the range that a school typically accepts. 

For example, James Madison University accepted applicants with an average SAT score of 1120-1290 and an average ACT score of 23-28 last year. If you apply to James Madison and your score falls within the upper 50th percentile of those ranges, we recommend submitting your score. Your score can be an additional data point for the school to identify you as a good match for them. It can also set you apart from similar applicants who didn’t submit a score.

If your child takes part in our college application coaching or test prep tutoring, we’re happy to help you consider the options and make the best decision for your child. 

Just click below to set up a free consultation and learn more about these services.

At the end of the day, performing their very best on the SAT/ACT can never hurt and just might help your child get into their test-optional school of choice. And performing their best starts now with a clearly-charted plan for test prep and test-taking!

We hope we’ve helped answer some of your questions about test-optional schools, but we also know that the college application process is overwhelming. Remember—you don’t have to do it alone! Our college application coaches and test prep tutors can help your family navigate this important process with more confidence and less stress. Just click here to get started with a free consultation. We’re here for you!

Talk So Your Kids Will Listen

Over the last 20 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of parents facing all kinds of homework and study issues.  Many have been successful in dealing with these issues, but others have not.

Those who have made the greatest progress have done two things:  They have opened up lines of communication within their household and they have learned to talk in a manner that their child will listen to regarding their expectations.


The Power of Effective Praise

So often, real progress begins when parents learn how to praise their kids successfully.  Praise is an especially powerful tool when it comes to homework, but many parents get it wrong.  Research shows that kids who are praised for effort rather than intelligence develop the motivation to keep trying — an important determinant of success and one the child can influence.

Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and a leading expert in motivation, conducted an oft-cited experiment on the effects of praise on 400 fifth graders.  One at a time, the children were given a fairly easy non-verbal IQ test.  The children were divided into two groups: Some were praised for their intelligence (“You must be smart at this”) and the others were praised for their effort (“You must have worked really hard”).    Later in the testing session, the same children were given a choice of tests — a more difficult test than the first test which they would learn a great deal from, or an easy one very similar to the first one.


Praising Effort Pays Off

Ninety percent of the students commended for their effort chose the more difficult test.  The majority of those praised for their intelligence chose the easy test.  Why did this happen?  Dr. Dweck said, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game. Look smart and don’t risk making mistakes.”


Be Specific

Other studies have demonstrated that specific praise is far more effective than generalized acclaim.  When words are too general, children disregard their parents’ praise.   Hence, rather than saying “Good job on that paper!” to reinforce good behavior, try “I liked the way you transitioned from your first point to the second”.   Instead of “I’m so proud of you” to bolster self-esteem, say “You went back to check your work.  That extra step was a great idea.”


Use a 2:1 Ratio

One last thought about praise – use it in a 2:1 ratio when you wish to suggest ways to improve on an effort.   In other words, begin with praise, make your suggestion, end with praise.


Eliminate Idle Threats

Helping your child with homework can bring out the worst in the best parents.  How many times have you wanted to say, “I’ve had it with you!  You’re grounded for the rest of the month.”   But idle threats made out of pure frustration are damaging to kids and add to our burden of parental guilt.  They also serious undermine a parent’s credibility.    What is needed to counter negative habits are rules that you apply consistently.  For example, if your rule is no video games until homework is done, institute a reward (games after work is complete) and a consequence (no games for the rest of the day) if the child plays the game before his work is done.   In order to make this work, the rule must be applied consistently every day.  When you demonstrate that you mean what you say, your child will beg and plead a whole lot less.


Give a Warning Before Consequences

Giving a child a warning before enforcing a consequence allows him to correct his behavior.  Be calm and matter of fact.  “This is your warning.  If you continue to doodle instead of completing your worksheet, bedtime is 8:45 instead of 9 pm.”  Say no more.  If you child responds after one warning, you’re golden.  Some children need two or three.  In advance, agree to a set number of warnings to help get your child back on track. Stick to that number.  State that you are giving a warning then walk away.  At any point when you see he is doing the right thing praise his effort.   Soon the need for repeating warnings should go away.


Try It for 21 Days

Even the smallest changes in the way you talk to your children can have huge effects.  For two days make a conscious effort to praise, eliminate idle threats and give warnings.  If you notice a positive impact in how your children respond to you, you’re on the right track.  Keep going.  The old adage “it takes 21 days to change a habit” is backed by research.  After three weeks, your efforts will pay off in big ways and a good habit in how you communicate with your kids will be established.