For many students, one of the most frustrating components of the college admission process is standardized testing. Even when test scores seem commensurate with high school courses, grades, and expectations, completing the tests (yes, there are often multiple tests to consider) is an onerous task. By the end of senior fall, let alone junior spring, students are often exhausted and exasperated by the examination hoops they have had to jump through. For those whose test scores aren't consistent with courses, grades, and expectations, the frustration is even more overpowering.
The good news is that the number of selective colleges and universities that don't include standardized test scores as part of college admissions requirements is growing, as is the availability of various alternatives to SAT or ACT requirements.
Assessing your scores as college admission requirements
Test-optional programs are tailor made for students who have taken and done well in college prep courses in high school, but have not been able, for one reason or another, to do equally well on standardized tests. This can be attributed to a number of challenges, including: a learning disability; a pronounced learning style that leads to lower-than-expected scores on multiple-choice bubble tests; English as a second language; or being educated abroad or in a school that de-emphasizes standardized testing.
As you get started, you should establish reasonable expectations as to your desired SAT or ACT scores. Not every student is expected to get a perfect score on these tests. These tests are designed so that only the highest performing segment of students will do so.
If you are taking the toughest curriculum in your school and getting straight A's, should you expect to get, say, 700 scores on your SAT sections? Sure. Are 650's still consistent with your performance. Probably. Are 500's? Probably not. If you are a B student in college prep courses, one would expect you to score above 500 on your SAT sections (about 20 on the ACT), and perhaps even into the low 600's.
Again, most students' scores are fairly consistent with their other academic preparation. Sometimes, however, they are not. This is when you should consider colleges that make tests optional or that have alternative test-submission opportunities as a source of college admissions assistance.
The test-optional option in the college admission process
Each year, new colleges join the roster of schools offering some choice in terms of test college admissions requirements. Some colleges have created alternative test programs that allow students to submit scores from several tests, such as APs or SAT Subject Tests, or sections of the SAT or ACT. Other schools allow students not to submit test scores as long as they interview on campus and provide a graded writing sample with their application.
Most selective institutions that are more or less test optional are small- to middle-sized liberal arts colleges. Some larger universities have also moved in this direction, but due to the nature and size of the applicant pools at different types of institutions, the smaller selective colleges are better suited to the test-optional college admissions process. That said, perhaps the original test-optional institution is the local community college; most have entirely open admission for high school graduates.
Including an explanation with your college admission requirements
If you apply to colleges that require standardized tests, but feel that your scores are not representative of your skills and abilities, consider adding a note to your application or writing an essay on the subject. Often this is helpful for students with learning disabilities or other reasons why a particular testing format does not work well for them. This is your chance to talk about strengths and weaknesses, and why you expect to be successful in college for other reasons.
Finally, creating a mixed application strategy — including some colleges that don't require standardized tests — will probably help you the most as you seek to open up appropriate options in the college admissions process.
By Howard and Matthew Greene, hosts of two PBS college planning programs and authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning series and other books.