Are you applying to college to start in Fall 2023 and wondering how to play the Test Optional game to the maximum? If so, in this blog, we’ll go through the data we have from the first ever test optional cycle at colleges and universities in the United States. Using that, we’ll create a nuanced story about what schools are going to be best bets for you if you don’t want to submit a test score and what schools are going to value a test score in this test-optional environment.
As you start to sort through your college list, we encourage you to look through the data in this blog to really get into each school and build your strategy for where you’re applying and why you might want to submit a score or not.
Test-Blind and Test-Required Schools
If a school is test-blind, you don’t submit a score at all and it doesn’t matter. If a school is test-required, you have to submit a score as part of your application. We’ll start with the test-blind schools first.
Among competitive colleges, CalTech (California Institute of Technology) is likely the most competitive right now and has a three-year moratorium on testing through this year, meaning Fall 2023. So, if you’re applying to attend in Fall 2023, your test scores will not have any consideration at CalTech. Which is a little ironic considering that MIT—which is probably CalTech’s biggest competitor—is requiring the SAT or the ACT.
Although not all of Cornell University is test-blind (some of it is test-optional), it has certain schools that are fully test-blind: the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences; the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning; the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business-Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management; and the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business-Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration. So, if you apply within Cornell to these particular schools, you will not need a test score, nor will they even look at it.
The University of California system (UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, and others) is also indefinitely test-blind. There are also a few small test-blind colleges that might be of note and are on the more competitive side: Pitzer, Reed College, and Dickinson College.
There are only a handful of test-blind schools right now, as the zeitgeist of the moment is really test-optional. We’ll get back to that in a moment, but first we’ll get into the test-required schools.
There are several competitive schools right now requiring the SAT or ACT, and at the top of the list is MIT. Continuing on, there are Georgetown, Georgia Tech, University of Florida (and all public Florida schools), Purdue, University of Georgia, and Gallaudet. If you apply to one of these colleges, you need to have a test score.
A Few Caveats
Number 1: All of this data is from students who were applying in the fall of 2020 for 2021 admissions. That means that these students were heavily impacted by test cancellations, and a lot of them could not get a hold of an SAT or ACT even if they wanted to. So, remember to take all of this with a grain of salt. Because this is based on relatively as well: we’re looking at how colleges responded to the circumstances relative to how other colleges responded, and using that as an indicator of where they might be a little bit more forgiving if you don’t have a test score. There are so many confounding factors that we can’t be 100% sure, and this is all guesstimation and estimation. But when you’re trying to flip a coin at a certain point because you like ten colleges but you know you only want to fill out applications for three of them, this could potentially help you make some of those decisions.
Number 2: All of the data we have is based on the percentages of students who enrolled at these colleges and universities, not the percentages of students who were accepted. Still, it’s a good indicator in terms of who you are, what you have to work with, and whether you’re the kind of student that will end up going to that school.
Top 20 Best Bets for Test-Optional
If you want to go to an extremely competitive college—but you’ve already exhausted the test-blind list and want to apply to a few other schools—and you’re wondering where you have a shot without a test score, these are probably some of your best bets.
Number one on the list is UChicago, which was test-optional even before the pandemic hit. There is no data for UChicago since they don’t release a common data set, but we would still call it a best bet because they have been open to the idea of test-optional since before the pandemic. If you’re in range at UChicago, though, we would still encourage you to send your scores.
Next on the list is Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt has really high test scores in terms of its 25th to 75th percentile; those that submit a high test score will have a better chance of admission, so if you have a great score, we recommend that you apply there because scores can still really help you. But statistically, if we take the percent of students that submitted SAT scores and/or ACT scores who are in that class now, it’s particularly low compared to the competition. So it’s still on our list if you’re looking to go test-optional.
Also on our list are Amherst, Cornell (all other colleges that aren’t test-blind), Harvey Mudd, Swarthmore, Emory, Williams, and Carnegie Mellon. But a piece of context for Emory: it is on our list of better bets for competitive test-optional colleges, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have an advantage if you have a test score. For example, 17% of students that submitted test scores who applied to Emory during this admission year were admitted, versus only 8.6% of students that did not submit test scores. Even though Emory, compared to its peers, enrolled more people who did not have a SAT or ACT score, their admission rate was almost double for people who had a score. So, this list does not tell the whole story, because these are, comparatively, potential better bets, not necessarily an admonition to not take the SAT or ACT. Within these statistics, you are still up against a harder mountain if you aren’t submitting a test score to anywhere that is considering test scores. Having a great test score is still beneficial, even at the schools that we say are the best test-optional bets. But we also want to give you information so that if you know you want to apply to reach schools where your score doesn’t quite reach, you’ll know which schools are the ones that maybe you have at least a shot at getting in.
Top 20 Worst Bets for Test-Optional
Notre Dame tops our list, followed by Princeton, Yale, Harvard, and Stanford. If you’re looking at these five and are only going to apply to one as a lottery ticket, Stanford is probably your best bet because they really love the wild card and the wow factor. So their reliance on test scores is slightly less pronounced compared to the other schools.
Northwestern, Brown, UPenn, and Rice are all still very competitive schools, and we’re seeing that the majority of students applying to these are submitting their test scores. So if you want to have a great shot at these schools, chances are that you should probably be submitting a test score if you can.
We don’t have data on all the top schools. For example, we don’t have common data sets on Dartmouth and Duke for this test-optional year. We expect to get data from them because they typically do fill out the common data set, but it’s not released yet. Washington University in St. Louis, Johns Hopkins, and Columbia notoriously do not release common data sets, though Columbia has recently announced that it is going to do so.
NYU also did not have data, but in Brooke’s experience, NYU loves a great test score. So if you can have one, that can be really important, especially because NYU is one of the few schools that is hypercompetitive that deemphasizes activities, letters of recommendation, and essays. In other words, if you want to get into NYU, a test score is sometimes a great golden ticket to get in and might even weigh in more at NYU than some of the other factors, which is not the case at other schools.
Top 50 Best Bets for Test-Optional
The best bets without a score would be Southern Methodist University, Northeastern, Villanova, Boston University, Tulane, Tufts, Wake Forest, Wisconsin, and Pepperdine. But take note: if you’re applying to Tulane, you have to apply early action or early decision. Over 90% of students last year who got into Tulane applied early in one way or another, so if you’re not applying early, you might not have a good shot at getting in.
Top 50 Worst Bets for Test-Optional
In terms of schools that we recommend that you do submit a score and those where the score really matters, these tend to be well-regarded state schools: University of Michigan, Ohio State, UT Austin, UVA, College of William & Mary, University of Southern California, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. All of these schools are going to value your SAT or ACT more, compared to those that are in the same ranking bracket.
Percent of Enrolled Students Submitting Either ACT or SAT Scores (Fall 2021)
|University||Percent Submitting SAT Scores Enrolled Fall 2021||Percent Submitting ACT Scores Enrolled Fall 2021|
|University of Washington||19%||8%|
|University of Arizona||12%||18%|
|University of Oregon||17%||16%|
|Southern Methodist University||16%||23%|
|Penn State University||37%||8%|
|University of Colorado, Boulder||32%||16%|
|Wake Forest University||23%||32%|
|University of Miami||31%||24%|
|North Carolina State University||21%||35%|
|Harvey Mudd College||40%||20%|
|University of Wisconsin-Madison||15%||46%|
|Michigan State University||48%||16%|
|Washington University in St. Louis||25%||41%|
|Case Western Reserve University||39%||27%|
|University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign||43%||24%|
|University of Georgia||36%||31%|
|Carnegie Mellon University||47.7%||21.9%|
|College of WIlliam and Mary||51%||19%|
|University of Delaware||60%||11%|
|University of Virginia||51%||21%|
|University of Southern California||47%||26%|
|University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill||15%||60%|
|University of Pennsylvania||49%||30%|
|University of Texas at Austin||56%||26%|
|University of Iowa||18%||65%|
|Ohio State University||21%||64%|
|University of Michigan||54%||32%|
|Georgia Tech University||53%||36%|
|University of Notre Dame||48%||52%|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology||70%||34%|
|Dartmouth College||no data||no data|
|Duke University||no data||no data|
|New York University||no data||no data|
*Note that these numbers may not be the most accurate representation due to the COVID-19 pandemic that affected testing sites and students’ ability to take the tests.