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Testing Confusion

For more than 70 years, SAT and ACT scores have been one of the primary admissions factors for almost every major university in the United States. However, in the past decade or so, the SAT and ACT have come under increasing fire as to how much they truly indicate students’ college readiness. The COVID pandemic (and corresponding lack of testing availability) has accelerated these changes, and many colleges have responded by changing their testing requirements in various ways, adding even more obtuse terminology to the ever-changing vortex of college admissions. 

First, the relevant definitions: 

Test Required

Definition: Students must submit SAT or ACT scores, and the school will use them as a factor in admissions decisions. 

Changes for 2020-21: This was the pre-COVID status quo. Few schools (barely any, outside of the state of Florida) are currently operating under this policy.

Recommendation: Students should strive to get the highest score possible as long as students can do so safely and doing so does not interfere with maintaining a high GPA and/or submitting stellar essays and applications.

Test Blind

Definition: Students are not allowed to submit SAT or ACT scores, and the school will not use them for admissions purposes. 

Changes for 2020-21: The number of test-blind schools has increased to approximately 65 schools. You can see the list of schools here (via

Example of Official Language: “Cornell CALS [School of Agriculture and Life Sciences] will not use test results as a part of our admissions review for students seeking admission for fall 2021. Instead, we will proceed with a holistic review of every application – excluding the use of SAT/ACT test results -- with an increased emphasis on evidence of academic preparation, creative exploration, and potential in the other application materials.” 

Recommendation: Since tests are not a factor in admissions, students should make sure to put their best foot forward on the other parts of the application, such as supplemental essays and interviews.

Test Optional

Definition: Students choose whether to submit their scores or not, and the school will consider the scores as part of its evaluation if they are submitted. 

Change for 2020-21: Most schools nationwide are currently operating under test-optional policies for the current admissions cycle.

Example of Official Language: “Duke University is adopting a test-optional policy for students applying for admission to the first-year undergraduate class in the 2020-21 admissions cycle. Students who are unable to or choose not to submit SAT or ACT scores this year will not be at a disadvantage in our consideration of their application. Our process has always considered SAT or ACT scores as only one part in our multifaceted review of applications as we seek to understand each applicant as a whole person and potential member of the Duke community.. We will continue to consider SAT and ACT scores as part of the application of students who choose to submit them.”

Recommendation: Whether students should submit their test scores (if they have them) to test-optional universities is the million-dollar question, and there is no clear-cut answer. The decision largely depends on where a student’s test scores and GPA fit in each school’s admitted student statistics. Where a student lives and which high school he or she attends can also play a factor (for many reasons, but this year another reason geography matters is to gauge general availability of testing). Generally, if a student’s test scores are above the school’s median (50th percentile) score, they should submit; if not, the choice becomes more difficult. Consult with an ESM counselor for more targeted advice, especially if the student’s scores fall within the 25th-75th percentile range.