What do Test-Optional Schools and Coffee Houses Have in Common?

Vinny Madera

Vinny Madera

Founder: Test Prep Wizards

Coffee is perhaps the greatest invention of all time—Debate me on that: you’ll lose. In fact, my coffee consumption is a great microcosm for some of the college admission process. Let me explain.

There’s a great coffee shop near me, FairCoffee, that is payment-optional. Just the other day, I received a coffee on the house for being a regular—how awesome is that! I’ve also seen customers get free coffee after purchasing their tenth coffee and people not have to pay for a coffee when the baristas were about to make a new batch. Plus, I’ve never seen a police officer, fireman, or paramedic pay for a beverage.

When I spoke with the owners, they said that between 80 and 90% of people pay for their drinks and, strangely, this irked people. These anti-coffee protesters said, “How can a store be payment-optional when most people pay!” Listen, as long as there’s a way to get a coffee without paying, saying you’re payment-optional seems legit, no?

Here’s the thing about FairCoffee…I made that up. However, if you thought that it was silly to call a coffeehouse “payment-optional” when most people have to pay, sit down, fill up your favorite coffee mug, and let’s talk test-optional.-

Seemingly each day, I read about another school going temporarily test-optional or an article about the “over 1200 schools that have gone test-optional.” Invariably, the article will then list the University of Chicago, Wake Forest, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and some other well-known colleges to bolster its point. But, have you ever thought about those other 1196 colleges and universities on the list?

Let me be frank. I think certain test-optional policies are immensely beneficial and are needed—something that many test-preparation professionals would agree with. However, when talking with many parents and students, I find that there is a lot of confusion about what “test-optional” actually means. Sadly, I think that, in the current pandemic landscape, it is causing students and parents to make questionable decisions about test preparation.

First off, though, to explain why test-optional is not a silver bullet, we need to get some basic facts out of the way.

  1. When any news institution mentions test-optional, they are using the data from Fairtest.org, referred to as Fairtest in this article.
  2. Test-optional is an umbrella word for many different policies. Using the definitions put forth by NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, we have these different policies under “test-optional”
    • Optional for All: Allows most or all students to choose whether to submit standardized testing scores as part of their admission application.
    • Optional Plus: Non-submitters are required to supplement their application with an interview or extra writing samples.
    • Optional for Some: Testing options are offered to some student groups but not others. Many times students in this class need to submit test scores for scholarship consideration, enrolling in certain programs, if they are homeschooled, or if they are out-of-state.
    • Academic Threshold: Students who meet certain academic criteria (e.g. rank, GPA) are admitted without standardized testing scores as part of the admissions decision. Sometimes called “Assured Admission” or “Guaranteed Admission.”
    • Test Flexible: Students submit scores from other standardized testing (e.g. International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, SAT II, Regents) in place of the ACT or SAT.
    • Test Blind: Scores may be submitted, but they will not be reviewed by admissions staff to make the academic decision.

In our experience, when people hear test optional, they assume it is what is outlined above as “test blind.” However, schools with test-blind policies are actually the rarest of all policies (fewer than 1% of the school’s on Fairtest.org’s list).

Here is Fairtest’s definition of test-optional:

“…institutions that are “test optional,” “test flexible” or otherwise de-emphasize the use of standardized tests by making admissions decisions — without using ACT or SAT scores — for all or many applicants who recently graduated from U.S. high schools.

As the endnotes indicate, some schools exempt students who meet minimum grade-point average or class rank criteria; others require SAT or ACT scores but use them only for placement purposes. Please check with the school’s admissions office for details.”

In reality though, it seems the real definition is “Is there ANY possible way for at least one student to get into the institution without submitting test scores?”

And—here’s a fun fact about test-optional schools—most applicants to test-optional schools submit test scores anyways. In fact,

And why wouldn’t applicants submit test scores if they would help an application? What seems better? A 3.95 GPA or a 3.95 GPA and high test scores? Shane Bybee of Bybee College Prep has a great analogy regarding test optional schools and whether you should send in scores.


Two guys were camping when a bear came up on the campsite.

One of the guys grabbed his sneakers and started to lace them up. The other said, “You really think sneakers will help you outrun a bear?”

The first guy replied, “I’m not trying to outrun the bear!”


For all the benefits that test optional policies have offered—particularly for female and minority applicants—an applicant is still competing against a large pool of would-be students looking to snatch his or her spot at the school. Make no mistake: a school going test optional increases the number of applicants to that school. Now, there’s more competition for the relatively same number of seats at the school.

I don’t want to be all conspiracy theorist or anything, but more applicants to a college leads to more students being rejected which, in turn, leads to a school being listed as more selective. Also, by going test-optional, perhaps a school is able to recruit better athletes who are NCAA clearinghouse-eligible, but far from who would normally be accepted.

If the problem was that the big, scary midrange (the posted 25th to 75th percentiles) of SAT or ACT scores frightened students and made them not apply, couldn’t the same argument be made for the posted GPA midranges? And, as GPA inflation continues to rise faster than standardized test scores do, more students have similar GPAs than in yesteryear. What better way to differentiate yourself from a peer than with a higher SAT or ACT score?

In fact, here’s another controversial claim by Test Prep Wizards

The more people think that test-optional is an option for them, the more important SAT and ACT scores become.

Unless you have some amazing talent, ooze leadership, or have a breathtaking story, test scores are almost certainly going to be part of the deciding factor for you at a school. Let’s break down University of Chicago.

What’s missing from any reported numbers is what percent of those who did not submit scores were admitted. Now, if we make the assumption that the percent of students admitted from both the submitted tests pool and test not submitted pool were both 6.17%, that comes out to between 214 and 321 students were admitted without test scores. Now, if you have that “it” factor that makes you one of those couple hundred students, put that ACT book back on the shelf, deactivate your Khan Academy account, and spend your time being as awesome as you already are.

Although, and I’ve written about this before, SAT and ACTs most definitely favor the wealthy, there are plenty of free or low-cost options for preparation. When done well, SAT and ACT improvement does not have to cost a lot or take a lot of time.

I’m on the record saying that us test prep professionals do not do anything that a motivated student could not do on his or her own. The key word there is motivated. And, to be clear, were not talking motivated as if you want to go to the University of Chicago, we mean motivated to go to whatever your first-choice school may be.

So, to summarize:

  1. Early in your high school career, put down some colleges or universities you would be interested in attending (don’t be afraid to update this list periodically!)
  2. See what academic criteria the applicants to those schools normally have—look at things like course rigor (number of AP courses taken, IB courses, etc.), GPA, and test scores (even if the school is test-optional).
  3. See if you can identify what else the school is interested in. Does it mention leadership a lot, creativity, free-thinking, etc.
  4. If the school is listed as test-optional, see what that means for the particular school. You may not qualify for test-optional entry.
  5. If the school is not test-blind, prepare for the SAT or ACT as if you needed your scores to be in the posted midrange.


Shameless plug. Test Prep Wizards offers many free and low-cost options to help you on your test preparation journey. We’ve never turned a family away because of financial issues.

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