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What Does Being Test Optional for SATs/ACTS Mean for Your Child?

Not so long ago, taking the SAT or ACT was a high school student rite of passage, up there with getting a driver’s license or attending prom. The COVID-19 pandemic changed all of that. With school closures and “shelter in place” orders of 2020, taking and administering achievement tests in-person became almost impossible. In response, most colleges and universities in the United States opted for “test-optional” polices as part of their application and admissions processes.

This test-optional trend is expected to continue for many U.S. colleges in 2021, and most likely beyond. In fact, many traditional subject tests, covering areas such as biology, chemistry, and world history have been discontinued by the College Board (the organization that administers SATs) altogether.

Additionally (and perhaps of most import to California-centric students and their families), a judge ruled in September 2020 that University of California schools “can no longer use SAT and ACT test results in deciding undergraduate admissions.”

Without data from these standardized tests, what will colleges and universities use in their place?

Educators expect admissions officers to take a more holistic approach to the college application process, meaning they will be looking at a student’s entire body of academic work, factoring in high school grades, the level of courses taken, and extracurricular activities.

“More than ever, student performance in school, rather than simply on SATs and ACTs, will go a long way toward determining what college or university a student gets into,” explains Lola Objois, president and founder of Spark Tutors, a San Diego-based academic coaching and tutoring service. “Academic coaching, tutoring, and targeted skills-building workshops like those we offer are becoming an increasingly important part of the educational process to address student struggles with certain subjects or even poor study and organizational habits.”

College essays are also expected to play a bigger role than ever, as are letters of recommendation, and participation in extracurricular activities.

  • Essays, in particular, provide a sense of student writing ability plus an indication as to the type of student someone has been and will be.

  • As for letters of recommendation, they will be weighted more heavily, underscoring the importance of students building strong relationships with their teachers and other educators.

  • Extracurricular activities offer students opportunities to shine in non-academic ways, such as sports, civic, and other roles.

Going test-optional isn’t an entirely new idea. It’s a movement that’s been building steam over the last few decades as debates over the fairness and efficacy of standardized tests led many colleges to discontinue the process. According to Smithsonianmag.com, Bates College of Lewiston, Maine, has been test-optional since 1990. Their experience in the 30+ years since adopting the policy is that the difference between those who submitted achievement test scores as part of admissions and those who didn’t was “negligible.”


Lola cautions, however, that students can’t disregard SATs and ACTs altogether. “First of all, not all colleges are test-optional. Some continue to require SATs and ACTs, and while others may not require SAT and ACT scores, they will allow students to submit them or other types of standardized tests.”

Further, while some colleges are test-optional for general admissions, they require students who are applying for merit aid, scholarships, honors programs, or other special programs, to submit SAT, ACT, or other achievement test scores.

Perhaps even more striking is this factoid from collegevine.com’s blog which states that, with all other factors being equal, “students who applied to a test-optional school who submitted (SAT & ACT) scores above the 25th percentile were accepted at roughly two times the rate of students who applied without submitting scores.” The blog goes on to state that “even students who submitted scores below the 25th percentile were accepted at a rate 1.25 times that of students who did not submit test scores (which) indicates that test-optional schools still prefer that students do submit scores.”

Key Takeaways

The importance of SATs and ACTs depends on a student’s school of choice. When applying to a school, especially one outside the state of California, it’s important for parents and students to learn the school or program’s particular policy governing SATs, ACTs, and other achievement tests.

Even with schools that are test-optional, higher admission rates for students who submit scores indicates there is still some benefit to taking and submitting SAT and ACT scores.

  • For students who still need to submit SAT and ACT scores, Spark Tutors is here to help with expertise on test-taking techniques as well as expert instruction on subjects students struggles with, especially in math and science.

For schools who don’t consider SAT and ACT scores, or who don’t emphasize them, such as University of California Schools and Cal Tech (which recently extended its moratorium to the fall of 2023 on both the requirement and consideration of SAT and/or ACT test scores for all first-year students applying there), student academic performance in high school, the courses taken, and the activities they were involved in are most important.

  • With as little as one session per week, academic coaching and tutoring through Spark Tutors can help boost high school academic performance and increase the likelihood of acceptance into a student’s college of choice.

Here to Help

If your high school student struggles with studies, organizational skills, or motivation to do well in school, contact Spark Tutors today. We can help your student create the best learning experience possible and prep for SATs and ACTs as/if needed.

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