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How Colleges Becoming Test-Optional Due to COVID Will Affect You

Two pencils resting on top of a completed scantron form.

It was no April Fool’s Day joke. On April 1, 2020, the University of California announced that it would be “relaxing” the standardized testing requirements for all students applying in the 2020-2021 admissions cycle, due to the widespread test cancellations caused by COVID-19.

While the University of California may have made the biggest splash in the application landscape, it was not the first to make such a policy shift. In the months and years since, hundreds of colleges have instituted temporary or permanent test-optional policies. The UC schools have even transitioned into being fully test-blind!

Given the prominent role SAT scores play in college admissions, these changes have radically altered the landscape for college admissions. What does that mean for you?

What Does “Test Optional” Really Mean?

First even with the ranks of the temporarily test-optional having grown dramatically since early 2020, juniors should still sign up for available test dates and take the test at least once. Even if every school were to drop its testing requirement, a good score would still be an asset to your application.

Second, if you have a great test score already, don’t despair! Test-optional schools are exactly that: optional. That means you won’t be penalized if you don’t submit scores, but if you do, they will be considered along with the rest of your profile.

Of course, even test-optional schools get thousands of applications, and they need to admit only a fraction of them—with or without the SAT. That means they have to pay even closer attention to the rest of your application: your grades, your resume, and your essays. In other words, if you cannot submit test scores or choose not to do so, you definitely want to make sure that the rest of your application materials are as strong as they can possibly be!

What Will Schools Use Instead?

In fact, you probably already knew that there’s plenty more that goes into college admissions than standardized tests. After all, the SAT is not a college entrance exam of the sort that exists for some private schools or universities in other countries. Rather, the SAT and ACT are simply one factor that American universities use in their holistic evaluation of prospective students.

So, what does that mean for you? Based on trends at schools that were test-optional even before the onset of COVID-19, here’s what you can expect if you opt not to submit an SAT score:


Your grades will take on new importance without a standardized test score because they’ll be the primary factor on which admissions committees can evaluate your academic performance. Without an SAT or ACT score to calibrate, they’ll look almost exclusively at your GPA for their statistical analyses.

Of course, the pandemic threw grading into disarray as well, with many schools moving to Pass/Fail grades or grading more leniently for a span of time. While admissions officers will work with what they have, this complication adds another layer of uncertainty to their evaluation. Nevertheless, you should strive to perform as well as you possibly can in your courses.


Given how much academic performance metrics have been in flux, colleges are going to turn to your resume to get a sense of how prepared you are for college life, both academically and socially. What kinds of academic enrichment have you sought outside the classroom? Beyond school, have you started to explore what you might want to study?

Similarly, colleges will care as much or more about how you’re going to fit into their student body. What are your passions? Is it clear how you’ll be involved on campus? More than ever, having a clear and coherent personal narrative will be imperative for a strong application.


In any year, your writing is a crucial part of your application. It’s where college admissions officers truly get to know you and what you’re about. Both your personal statement (a.k.a. the Common App Essay) and your school-specific supplementary essays provide admissions readers their best opportunity to understand what makes you a strong and unique candidate.

Without some of their usual metrics, colleges and universities rely more than ever on your ability to show them in your essays why you’re the best fit for their school.

Final Thoughts

While colleges dropping standardized testing requirements just temporarily is highly unusual, the general trend away from the SAT and ACT is nothing new. Indeed, these changes came on the heels of a year (2019) in which more American colleges and universities than ever dropped their testing requirements, according to the advocacy group Fair Test. And it remains to be seen whether schools that have dropped the test temporarily will reinstate the requirement or continue on as fully test-optional schools.

In the meantime, however, it’s important to be aware of these changes as you make your college list and prepare your applications. For a growing number of schools, your application won’t be about a single numerical score: it’ll be much more about who you are and what matters to you. Perhaps that’s a silver lining!

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