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  • Writer's pictureAllison Styffe

Test-optional, test-blind, test-flexible — what's the difference?

Updated: May 26, 2020

In 1926, the first SATs were administered. Thirty years later, the ACT assessment arrived on the scene. For decades these entrance exams have played a significant role in the college admissions process, but now, for the first time in nearly 100 years, colleges are re-thinking the criteria to use when evaluating applicants, in large part due to COVID-19. Spring, the most popular time to take the tests, came and went without a single SAT or ACT in the books. Test dates continue to be cancelled, and although there are plans to administer exams on a monthly basis starting in the fall, with back-up plans to administer the tests online, there is no certainty that college-bound seniors will be able to take the SAT or ACT at all.

And so colleges have begun to announce that they will become test-optional. Others have declared themselves test-blind. And then there are those that will be test-flexible.

But wait—what does that mean? and what's the difference? and should you even worry about taking an entrance exam at all? The answer to that last one is a resounding YES, but we'll get to that more in a moment. First, let's break down these new terms.

Test-optional schools do not require the SAT or ACT as part of a student's application, but if a student would like to submit exam scores, they are welcome to. The school will take the scores into consideration when evaluating an applicant; however, they will put a greater emphasis on the other application components: academic performance (GPA and course rigor), extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, etcetera. When it comes to test-optional schools, we encourage you to take the SAT or ACT as a way to boost your application — think of it as the cherry on top: not an essential part of the sundae, but it certainly adds that extra something!

As for test-blind colleges, not only do they not require entrance exam scores, but they won't take your performance on the ACT or SAT into consideration at all, at least not when it comes to admissions. Even if you were to send your scores in, they would turn a blind eye (hence, test-blind) and look only at the required elements of your application. Of course, just because you're applying to a test-blind school doesn't mean you should cross entrance exams off of your to-do list; ACT and SAT scores are still used as scholarship criteria, after all!

Unlike the other two options, test-flexible schools do require you to submit test scores, but you're not limited to just the SAT or ACT. These colleges allow you to choose the standardized test(s) that best represent your abilities. Options include SAT subject tests and IB/AP scores, or even a combination of the two; for example, students could choose an SAT Subject Test in Math, the SAT Writing section, and an IB score in Biology. Mix and match to create the combo that best shows off your strengths!

Before you consider skipping the SAT or ACT, make sure you are checking the admissions pages or calling admissions counselors at the schools you're interested in. Chances are, taking an entrance exam is still the best move for you!

Two important reasons to take the ACT or SAT: money and fame (errr, admissions to your favorite college). You’ve worked hard to get to where you are, and if someone out there wants to give you free money or a better chance at being admitted based on your scores...take advantage of that!

Earn scholarships

You can earn thousands of dollars in scholarships just based on your SAT or ACT test scores. Consider studying for the SAT or ACT like a job that is paying you a great wage! Let’s talk about a few college scholarships you can earn automatically just from your test scores.

  • First, the National Merit Scholarship. The National Merit competition recognizes the top performers in each state on the PSAT (Practice SAT). You can earn a $2,500 scholarship in addition to other college scholarships if you list them as your first choice school on the National Merit application.

  • Next, automatic scholarships are awarded at many colleges that accept SAT or ACT scores. This is typically a guaranteed process, no separate application needed (so long as you meet the admissions deadlines for scholarships)! As an example, let’s look at the University of Oregon; the award amounts vary based on your residence status and look at test scores in addition to your GPA:

Did you notice that if you raise your ACT from 25 to 26, or SAT from 1220 to 1250, your award can increase by $3,000 if you're a resident? That's a pile of money for just a few points, so STUDY!

  • Many other universities operate their scholarships on a cut-off system for scholarship consideration. So even though a certain SAT or ACT score won’t guarantee you a scholarship, a score above a certain point will be a factor in whether you’re in the running for a scholarship.

  • College Board scholarships are also a winning opportunity! These Opportunity Scholarships are amazing, and if you complete even one of the steps, such as studying for the SAT, you’re eligible for $500, and if you complete all six steps, which includes improving your score and applying to colleges, you can be eligible for a $40,000 scholarship. This is a no-brainer, just do it.

  • Finally, don’t forget about outside scholarships, meaning scholarships not given by the college you’ve applied to. Use a scholarship search tool such as this one from Unigo and search for merit-based scholarships (those based on your academic performance, which include your SAT and ACT scores). The College Board scholarship search tool is also great for finding merit aid and tailors the results to your specific academic profile.

Enhance your application

The other important reason to still take the SAT or ACT—even if colleges are test-optional or test-flexible—is to strengthen your application. Imagine the thousands of applications that admissions committees must sort through, and with the lack of test score data, it’s even harder to make sense of who is the best candidate. So, the addition of a medium to strong test score truly works in your favor.

With so much uncertainty in the world of college admissions, anything at all that indicates you have a strength or talent will be a benefit. Remember that the other aspects of your application will be weighed more heavily in the absence of test scores, so if you don’t have a robust resume or other activities/experiences that make you a stand-out, the scores can provide the extra support you need to rise above the crowd.

To register for the SAT, click here.
To register for the ACT, click here.
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