Should You Apply to SAT-Optional Colleges?

SAT-optional colleges have grown from one (Bowdoin) in 1969 to 280 today (according to FairTest). Note that “optional” doesn’t mean these colleges disregard the SAT entirely; as of 2007, only one college (Sarah Lawrence) has done that (according to U.S. News).

The other SAT-optional colleges have a variety of policies. Some require the SAT (or ACT) only from out-of-state applicants. Others require the test only for certain majors, or only for students whose GPAs aren’t high enough.

Why did these colleges decide to become test-optional? There appear to be two primary reasons. For one, some colleges seek to admit otherwise-worthy students who perform relatively poorly on standardized tests. The second reason is that schools can achieve higher rankings by not reporting the scores of those who did not submit them for application (presumably, these tend to make up a large proportion of their lowest scores).

Standardized Test

Before I seek to answer the question posed in the title of this article, let me point out that the stated purpose of the SAT (and ACT) is to predict students’ grades in college. To some extent, that is the purpose of the entire application process. Colleges want students who will get good grades. I suppose that, to some extent, they would also like to admit students who will be successful after graduation, but that’s a lot more difficult to predict.

Now, getting good grades in college is heavily tied to – guess what? – scoring well on tests. True, there are other factors, such as reports, homework, labwork, etc. But tests are of prime importance (particularly at large colleges that have large classes). They may differ from standardized tests such as the SAT, but the fact remains that poor SAT takers are likely to be poor test takers. So competitive colleges have a big incentive to avoid admitting those students who score very low on SATs.

When you don’t send SAT scores to many of these colleges, you are in effect writing “I suck at the SATs” in big red letters across the front of your application. Remember, the SAT score reporting is optional; you can send your scores if you wish. And you can be sure that students with good scores are sending them.

So why bother applying? Clearly, some students who withhold scores (or don’t take the tests) are being accepted. And some SAT-optional schools are highly ranked.

So my conclusion would be: first, check on the policies of any SAT-optional schools to which you are interested in applying. Second, unless your SAT scores are so low as to be totally out of whack with your GPA and other qualifications, send them on. Admissions officers aren’t stupid. If your GPA is slightly above the school’s median, and you withhold your SAT scores, those officials will figure that your SATs are below the median, and decide accordingly. So you haven’t helped your cause if your SAT scores are slightly below the median, and you probably hurt your chances if you’re right around the median.

To sum up, I am saying that test-optional policies are of little help to those students who underperform a little on their SATs. However, they can help if you underperform a lot. For example, suppose you wish to apply to a school, and you see that 75 percent of its freshman class had a high school GPA over 2.5, and 75 percent had SAT scores over 1500. If you have a GPA of 2.6 and an SAT score of 1430, send it and hope for the best. But if your SAT score is 1300, withhold it (note that this is an oversimplified analysis; other factors may influence your decision).

List of SAT-optional colleges from FairTest

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