Going to College Without the SAT? It Can Be Done

Back in the 1960s, when I was in school, you had to take the SAT to get into college. It was a fact of life. And as a high school student with serious learning and thinking differences, I remember—all too clearly—the stress and anxiety of taking the test.

I did fairly well on the SAT for a student with a C- average, but that was probably due to luck. It also helped that my teachers stopped teaching classes for a few weeks so we could focus on improving our test-taking skills.

Thankfully, today, the landscape for college admissions tests is changing.

Many schools are deciding not to require the SAT or ACT. In fact, the Washington Post recently reported that more than 180 colleges with rankings in U.S. News & World Report have gone test optional. That’s a significant number, and it seems to be growing.

Why are colleges going SAT and ACT optional?

One reason is that colleges are starting to focus more on the “whole child.” They want to know about a student’s skills and passions, not just her test-taking ability.

There’s also the feeling that college admissions tests aren’t fair to minorities or to students with learning differences. These tests may also give an unfair advantage to wealthy families. After all, they can afford pricey test prep courses.

But there’s another factor you may not have thought about. It turns out the first colleges that went SAT and ACT optional saw a big increase in the number of students who applied. Colleges see that as a good thing.

When I was at the Churchill School in New York, I counseled many high school students with on college placement. So I saw firsthand the stresses caused by these tests.

At Churchill, most of my students took the PSAT—a practice test for the SAT. Many of the students didn’t perform well on tests because of their learning and thinking differences (and sometimes anxiety). After they saw their poor PSAT scores, major panic set in.

So here’s what I did.

In my class, I had the kids look up websites that listed schools with SAT and ACT optional policies. I asked them to think about their ideal college—its location, its size and the majors it offered. Then, they had to find three test-optional colleges that matched what they wanted in a school.

As the students explored, it was amazing to see the panic lift.

The students were able to find colleges they were interested in that didn’t require the SAT or ACT. These weren’t just specialized colleges, such as performing arts schools. Some were very well-known universities. And many had strong academic programs.

If your child is thinking about a school that is SAT and ACT optional, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Online lists are a good place to start. For example, the organization FairTest.org provides a pretty comprehensive list of test-optional schools. But keep in mind that online lists aren’t perfect. It’s important to visit the college’s website to confirm whether they have a test-optional policy.
  2. Many test-optional colleges require your child to submit a research paper that includes all her teacher’s comments and grades. So save your child’s good papers in high school.
  3. If your child takes the SAT or ACT, you can pay to see the scores before deciding whether to send them to colleges. This costs extra money, but it might be worth it. Doing so could communicate to your child that she has nothing to lose by taking the tests.
  4. Sometimes, it may make sense for your child not to take the SAT or ACT. This is tough decision that requires careful thought. Ask yourself questions like: Are all your child’s top choices for college test-optional? Would the anxiety of taking the SAT or ACT hurt her school or home experience? Is she able to get outside help to prepare her for these tests?

Anxiety over the SAT and ACT is very real for some kids. But there are ways to help boost your child’s confidence before the test. And hopefully, the fact that many schools are now test optional will make getting into college a little less stressful for kids with learning and thinking differences.

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About the author

About the author

Jim Rein, MA has lectured on postsecondary options and summer programs for kids and young adults with learning and thinking differences.