Melissa Brock

Melissa Brock

Writer & Blogger

My name is Melissa and I’m a longtime admission professional, personal finance writer, editor  and parent of two (very!) busy kiddos. I couldn’t make it all happen without my husband, Steve.

I hatched my site because I’ve heard so many head-scratching questions from parents. I’ve journeyed in the footsteps of hundreds of families, trekked to dozens of college fairs and even weighed the (billions?) of college savings options for my own two kiddos.

Test Optional, Test Flexible and Test Blind: What the Heck’s the Difference?

by | Sep 19, 2020 | Ask the admission office | 0 comments

This year, college application season feels like you’re a sloth. You finally move three inches, then get sizzled on a power line. 

You should see the questions on college Facebook groups I belong to. 

One parent just posted, “My daughter is a senior and her Sept ACT got cancelled again. What can we do to get a test scheduled. The dates r blocked till Dec. any info would be appreciated.” 

Another one posted, “So do kids have to take the SAT or ACT and whcih one. I’m confused.”

I do love social media spelling and grammar — because you know what it means? You’re BUSY. You don’t have time for punctuation! Don’t waste another second monkeying around figuring out how to get this school year started. Get the College Money Tips Start of School Checklist for the College Search now. You need this checklist, if not just to keep your sanity! 

Now, let’s get to our burning topic: ACT and SAT and all the questions.

Should My Child Take the ACT or SAT?

Is this not the question OF. THE. YEAR?

College website says: “Standardized tests are optional.” 

You say, “Uhmmmm… Is that a trick question?”

First of all, let’s talk about these tests. Colleges use both the ACT and SAT, or standardized tests, for admission purposes and to determine which students receive merit-based scholarships. 

Most colleges accept both the SAT and the ACT. (Learn more: What Does ACT Stand For? And What Does SAT Stand For?) Typically, colleges have no preference for which test your child takes, despite persistent rumors that one is “better” than the other. 

Just when you think you have it all figured out — ZZZZZZszzzt. (That’s the sound of crisping sloth.)

The question just got more complicated because now colleges have introduced test optional, test flexible and test blind.

Test Optional, Flexible and Blind: Versions of the Same Thing?

I marvel at the way college admission offices invent terms to addle our brains. (Consider how many types of admission exist in this world.)   

What the. Heck. is Test Optional?

Your child gets a choice about whether to send in SAT or ACT scores. 

As if things couldn’t get murkier.

It’s like they’re saying, “Weeeelll, you can send in SAT scores — if you think you want to.” 

If this is your response: “Seriously. Just tell us what to do. If we need to, we’ll take the test. We’ll wear eight masks! We’ll stand in line for days! Just tell us what to do — I don’t want to hear that it’s optional.” I completely understand.

But that’s really the deal with test optional. You and your child decide whether to submit test scores with the application. Most test-optional schools consider SAT and ACT scores if they are submitted, with a large caveat. They also consider:

  • Student essays
  • Recommendations
  • Grades
  • Coursework 

They look at these just as (or more) closely than your test scores.

The benefit: Test optional gives your child a chance to purposefully craft his or her candidacy. It means your child can offer other ways to present herself in the best way possible. Maybe your Scorsese-obsessed child submits a video essay. Maybe your daughter can craft her essay around the novel she started two years ago.

You and your child get more control over what your child presents to those steely-eyed admission officers! 

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What’s Test Flexible? 

So, test flexible. This is my favorite, because it looks like it’s more relaxed, but you still have to take a test!

A test-flexible policy requires your child to send test scores but students submit other test scores in place of the SAT or ACT. A  few examples:

  1. SAT Subject Test
  2. International Baccalaureate exam
  3. Advanced Placement test

Now… Test Blind? (Are They Kidding?)

A handful of colleges allow test blind admission. I know, I know. The fun never stops. 

Colleges with test-blind admission policies do not want you to send test scores at all. 

Sounds like the most straightforward option of all of them, doesn’t it?

The college’s website might sound something like this, from Northern Illinois University: “Test-blind means that we will not review standardized test scores (SAT or ACT) for general admission and merit scholarship consideration starting with applicants for the fall of 2021.”

But then NIU’s site goes on to say, “We’ll look at your high school GPA instead. Research shows that GPA is a better indicator of success in college. You may need to provide your ACT or SAT score for certain other scholarships. You’ll also need to provide it if you’re applying to the nursing program, a limited admission program.” 

Read everything because college policies vary!

How Do Students Get Admitted Without SAT or ACT Scores?

How do students get admitted without SAT or ACT scores?

It’s important to remember that even before the pandemic, most U.S. colleges admitted two-thirds or more of students who apply. And don’t forget that most public four-year and community colleges are open access. This means no exams required!

I decided to catch up with one test-optional college to find out what test optional means at that institution. Terri Crumley, director of admissions at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), says, “At UNI, students not submitting a test score (test-optional) will be reviewed using holistic review. The review will include factors such as the student’s high school GPA and core course selection.”   

How Are Scholarships Dished Out Without ACT/SAT Scores?

How does no ACT or SAT translate to scholarships?

Great question.

“We are offering initial scholarships based on the GPA. We also have some scholarships that will require an ACT/SAT score or an additional application. Need-based scholarships will also be available,” says Crumley. 

However, it’s extremely important to check with the institutions your child’s interested in to determine how each college offers scholarships, particularly scholarships where you might need to audition and more.

How to Decide Whether to Take the ACT or SAT 

Now your child must decide whether to take the SAT or ACT. Take these steps to figure it out. 

Step 1: Look carefully at colleges’ qualifications.

Check online first. You may quickly figure out that all schools you apply to are kind of in the same pool — all test optional or all test flexible.

Do they require class rank, weighted and unweighted GPA? Make sure you look for all the details and all the requirements.

“Most high schools are not using class rank anymore. If a high school offers both a weighted and unweighted GPA, students should include both,” says Crumley.

Step 2: Reach out to schools your child’s interested in.

Every school is different. I can’t stress this enough. Let’s say your child’s grades aren’t stellar. The ACT may boost your child’s qualifications, so he might want to take the SAT or ACT. 

You must get on the phone with admission counselors and find out what they recommend. Share your particular situation. 

Ask questions like this:

  1. Will taking the ACT or SAT greatly enhance my child’s chances of getting admitted?
  2. What other things can we do to increase my child’s chances of getting in? 
  3. Should we include letters of recommendation or additional personal statements? What additional materials do you need? Academic work? Scientific research?
  4. What are your exact policies? Do these policies depend on my child’s potential major?

Step 3: Make sure your child gets a seat.

Have you decided it’s in your child’s best interest to take the ACT or SAT? 

It might be hard to get a seat. For example, the ACT has done its best to place the class of 2021 seniors in seats at sites that are currently open for the fall. Some of these students could not be automatically registered for fall test dates. However, ACT has tried to secure additional space for students. 

Consider where you might be able to go beyond your area to take the test or arrange for alternate test dates.

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Make a Decision

By the way, if it seems as if I’m making light of admission policies and processes, it’s simply to get you to smile. In no way do I mean to make light of the situation we’re in. 

Colleges continue to exhibit flexibility and adjust requirements for students. For those with younger students: Nobody really knows how the situation will change. 

The process of learning about the SAT and ACT might seem sloth-like. No matter what, though, ACT cancellations should not put your child at a disadvantage. 

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