Updated: Jan 14, 2021
With so many colleges now choosing to take a “test optional” approach to the SAT and ACT, I’m receiving a lot of questions about what this actually means. Does optional really mean optional? If I don’t submit a score will I be penalized or less competitive for admission? I’ve taken the test and received the scores, but should I take it again?
Because I’m receiving these questions so frequently, I wanted to take some time to address how I’m thinking about SAT and ACT testing.
First and foremost, your safety comes first. At no point should you feel like you are sacrificing feelings of safety around COVID-19 to take the SAT or ACT. Colleges have consistently stated that “optional” really does mean “optional,” and so far, I’ve seen absolutely nothing to suggest some type of wink and nudge when they say this. This past fall I worked with more than 30 seniors on an individual level and around 25% of them did not submit scores to colleges. I have yet to see anything suggesting that they have been penalized in the application review process as a result.
Given the truly optional nature of taking and submitting your test scores, here are some testing strategies you might consider:
Option 1: Don’t take the test at all.
To my above point, if you feel concerned for your safety, the most simple (and completely acceptable) approach to the SAT and ACT is to just not take the tests. Instead, consider how you might spend the time that otherwise would have been focused on studying for the tests to develop your interests or skills (which can then be used to draft more compelling college application essays and activity lists down the road).
Option 2: Decide early to commit to the SAT and forget about trying to take the ACT.
Because most high schools sponsor and provide the PSAT* and initial SAT to all students, almost every junior or senior I’ve worked with has taken the SAT. But then the question becomes “should I take the ACT as well?” In this approach, you forget about the ACT and just focus on the SAT (or vice versa if you somehow took the ACT first). Now, the only question you need to ask yourself after receiving your scores is “should I take the SAT again?” The answer to this question should be driven by whether or not the student has met their target score.
How do you determine your target score? My recommendation would be to look at the list of colleges you are interested in possibly applying to and determining the average (50%) score of previously accepted applicants to each of these colleges. From there, your target score should be the highest average score amongst that list of colleges. If you are below that score, take it again. If you meet or exceed that score, you are done.
Option 3: Take both the SAT and ACT.
As mentioned in option 2, most students take the PSAT and SAT as part of the offerings provided by their high school. However, if you can get your hands on practice ACT tests (https://blog.prepscholar.com/complete-official-act-practice-tests-free-links) and take a practice ACT or two around the same time as the PSAT, you will be provided with a good sense of which test you naturally score better on (keep in mind, colleges have no preference on whether you submit ACT or SAT scores).
If you notice that you naturally score way better on one test versus the other, you can probably just revert to option 2. However, if your scores are similar (compare your scores using this: https://www.princetonreview.com/college-advice/act-to-sat-conversion), you might consider taking the SAT when offered by your high school but also signing up to take the ACT. With official scores in hand for both tests, you can then decide to submit both scores (if they are both on target), submit the higher score of the two, or sign up to take one of the tests a second (and even third) time, if necessary.
So, what do I think is the best option? Honestly, there is no right answer here. Obviously the most simplistic way to go is option 1 (but almost no students I've worked with take this route, and assuming safety is not a concern, I don't recommend it). Most students end up going with option 2, and it seems to work well as a strategy.
Having said that, I think Option 3 is the smartest way to go, but it does take the most amount of prep time and planning (Option 3 becomes somewhat unfeasible after around March of the junior year). Also, it's important to keep track of score reporting policies at the schools where you might apply. Most colleges allow you to pick and choose which scores you send forward (referred to as score choice), but some colleges (University of Maryland is a good example) ask to see your entire testing history (meaning that if you've taken the SAT twice and the ACT once, they want you show them all of those scores, not just the highest ones).
I have seen students take somewhat ad hoc approaches to testing (for example, deciding late in the game to just take an ACT to see how they score). There's nothing technically wrong with this approach, but I think it generally results from poor planning and stress.
Ultimately, developing and sticking with your testing plan early is the surest way to keep stress levels low and seems to yield the best outcomes.
*Note: If you weren't able to take the PSAT due to COVID, my recommendation would be to find a practice SAT online (https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sat/practice/full-length-practice-tests) and take the test on your own at home with a timer to replicate test conditions as close to possible.