Test Optional - What Does It Mean?

By Heather Rule

The concept of “test optional” in college admissions is something that’s been around long before the pandemic.

Bowdoin College in Maine was the first to go test optional in 1969, and beyond that, the modern test-optional movement started in the mid-1980s, according to Bob Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest.org. 

By the late 1980s, Fair Test had a report called Beyond Standardized tests listing the schools, about a couple dozen, that did not require test scores as part of the college admissions process.


Accelerated by the pandemic

By March 2020, when COVID-19 hit, about 1,050 colleges already had test-optional policies in place, according to Schaeffer. With the pandemic came the shut down of many things, including standardized testing due to health and safety concerns. 

Because of that, many other schools suspended testing requirements for 2020 and 2021 applicants, bringing the number of schools up to 1,800 schools out of about 2,300 nationally (roughly three-quarters) that went test optional, Schaeffer said.

“It definitely intensified with the pandemic,” said Kristen Hatfield, director of admissions at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., a school that went test optional even before the pandemic. “It was sometimes impossible for students to sit for an ACT or SAT. So it really made schools go the route of being test optional even if they weren’t prior to the pandemic.”

The University of Minnesota moved to test optional during the pandemic, and it will continue to re-evaluate, according to Keri Zwieg Risic, interim executive director of the office of admissions at the University of Minnesota. The policy change made sure every student had the opportunity to complete an application, Zweig Risic said.

“For us, the test score is one component of many factors considered in our holistic review,” Zweig Risic said, adding that the school has used that holistic approach for more than 50 years. They consider the rigor of courses, types of courses and grade point average.  

Very few schools went back to their old policies, Schaeffer said.

“Test optional is a win-win for higher education and for students,” Schaeffer said. “Most campuses find that after they went test optional, they got more applicants that are academically prepared in terms of high school GPA and course rigor, and more diversity.”


Not just a test score

Students feel empowered with test optional, Shaeffer said, because they don’t think that a test score represents who they are and like the idea of being treated as more than a score when applying to college. Test optional has been particularly empowering for historically disenfranchised student groups, such as those who are the first in their family to go to college, Schaeffer said.

“We would encourage students to share information with us that they believe represents their academic preparation and, again, in our holistic approach, the test score is one of many factors in our review,” Zweig Risic said.

Going test optional offers St. Thomas, for example, the chance to look more deeply at other parts of the application, Hatfield said. Many times in the past, a test score would stop admissions folks in their tracks sifting through an application, she added. Now, it’s a benefit to dig into the essay and transcript portions of applications beyond test scores, Hatfield said.

“So there’s a great advantage for both the students, and frankly for those of us reviewing the applications, because it can be frustrating to see a really, really strong student but know that the test score has to be part of the factor,” Hatfield said. “There’s so many other factors, again, that make up whether a student will succeed and what their experience has been through the high school process that are so much more important than just one test score element.”

Going test optional also resulted in more applications at St. Thomas, and Hatfield said it would be hard to find a school that didn’t see an increase as well.

Choosing to go test optional is up to each institution, so students and their families should always ask the right questions in the application process to know if a school they’re looking at is test optional, test blind or still requires the standardized test scores.



Sidebar: Test Optional

What does “test optional” mean? College applicants have the choice whether they want to submit their ACT or SAT scores on their college applications to be considered as part of the admission process. 

Students who choose to apply without their test school will have applications reviewed on all of the other pieces in the application process. If a student does send in their test score, it will be factored into the application process.

“So many students worry that it will be held against them,” Hatfield said. “But the real fact of the matter is it’s just that we then make decisions as an admission staff on the other information on the application.”

What does “test blind” mean? Admissions offices will not consider the ACT or SAT test scores on a student’s college application, even if they are submitted. This is not the same as test optional.


About the Author

Heather Rule