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Students are opting out of submitting test scores. Here’s what you need to know

September 30, 2020

Across the last couple of months, my high school senior daughter has received an influx of emails and ads advertising new test-optional policies from many of the colleges and universities on her list. But at each institution, language about the move to “test-optional” looks a little bit different, and frankly, neither she nor I are quite sure what the move to test-optional means for the rest of her application.

At the same time, our Enrollment Services partners are sharing that going test-optional has posed significant challenges: how do you replace test scores as an admissibility indicator? How do you rebuild financial aid and scholarship models sans test scores?

To help VPEMs and their teams navigate this newly test-optional landscape, our analysts looked at the extent to which students are taking advantage of test-optional opportunities. We also considered what institutions can do to make sure test-optional policies support, rather than confuse, students and their families during this already confusing time. Here’s what we found.

Students are taking advantage of test-optional policies slightly more often than expected


of applications submitted used EAB-hosted platforms included test scores
of applications submitted used EAB-hosted platforms included test scores

Between canceled test dates and new priorities and responsibilities on students’ plates, we predicted prospective students would opt out of submitting test scores at a higher rate this cycle. But our analysts and VPEM partners have been surprised at the extent to which students are opting out of submitting test scores. Fewer than half of students who have submitted applications using EAB-hosted platforms have chosen to submit test scores when the option is available to not submit them. Last year, more like two-thirds of students chose to submit test scores, even if they didn’t have to. And just last week, the VPEM at a private school in the south shared that nearly 60 percent of their applicants are opting not to submit test results since they went test-optional—much higher than their team had anticipated.

As you might expect, the rate at which students submit test scores diverges by gender, ethnicity, and income—renewing equity concerns surrounding the SAT and ACT. And merit policies that heavily rely on test scores will only exacerbate issues of equity further. Students who identify as female are 15% less likely to include their scores when compared to male-identifying students. Latinx and African American students are 25% less likely to submit their test scores as compared to white students. Students with a higher median family income are also more likely to submit test scores. While many states and districts now offer an admissions test to all students regardless of family income, few states offered tests this year, making it difficult if not impossible for some students to submit test scores.

Whether or not you’re going test-optional or just emphasizing flexibility in your admission timelines and criteria, students appreciate that universities are acknowledging the difficulties students face in taking the SAT or ACT this year. Our partners have received an influx of emails from students, like the one below, expressing gratitude for test-optional policies.

I just want to thank you guys for being test-optional, as the coronavirus pushed back my test date earlier this year and messed up a lot of my plans. With you guys being test-optional, it gives me reassurance that I won’t be penalized if I’m unable to send my scores in time. Thanks so much for taking us students into consideration!

-Student Email

Institutions’ descriptions of test-optional vary—and confuse some students

More than two-thirds of four-year colleges in the US are not requiring applicants to submit a test score, with upwards of 1,570 schools now test-optional. But across these institutions—and the flurry of paid search ads and emails my daughter has received—we’ve seen huge variance in how institutions describes their test-optional policies.

Enrollment leaders run the risk of confusing students and missing out on their applications if they don’t articulate test-optional policies clearly and consistently. At EAB, we’ve received dozens of emails from prospective students who are confused by the terminology colleges used to explain their test-optional policy. For example, some schools have listed test-optional policies for the entering class of 2020 on their website but do not yet have information about test-optional policies for next year’s entering class available. Others seem to indicate writing samples from the ACT or SAT are required but note they are primarily for academic advising purposes.

For our Enrollment Services partners going test-optional, our analysts and copywriters have been testing different ways of explaining test-optional policies to determine what language is clearest to students and generates the most applications. From there, we’ve been auditing institutions’ language announcing the move to test-optional against best practice. Language like “test scores not required” has proven to be especially student-friendly. We’ve also been providing partners with a template for the best way to include a test-optional question within application platforms.

While going test-optional isn’t the right fit for every institution, the move to test-optional should accommodate students during this unique college application process. Avoid substituting test scores with other barriers to application such as additional essays. The harder we make it for students to submit their application, the less likely they are to apply.

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This webconference will explore what enrollment managers can expect from introducing a test optional policy – weighing the potential benefits, as well as challenges, presented by these policies. We will explore institutional considerations to keep in mind when shifting to a test optional policy and share case studies from institutions that have recently gone test optional.

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