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Low SAT/ACT Scores? No Problem.

by Will Geiger, on Jul 22, 2021 6:36:59 PM


There are more than 1000 Test-Optional and Test Flexible Colleges.


Jessica walked into my office looking defeated. She sat down in a chair, her shoulders slumped. “My scores went down…” she said.

I felt a pit in my stomach, knowing how hard Jessica had worked to improve her standardized test scores. She spent nearly every weekend for two months doing practice ACT tests and was showing progress. She had a target score and was hopeful that she achieved it, but her actual score went down. As she was sitting there, I started naming schools: “U Chicago, Bates, George Washington, Wake Forest….do you know what they all have in common?”

Jessica gave me a blank look.

“None of these schools require the ACT or SAT...maybe it’s time we take a look at some of the test-optional schools?”

There are over 1,000 test-optional and test-flexible colleges and universities in the United States. These range from world-renowned research universities like the University of Chicago to smaller liberal arts colleges like Bowdoin and Wesleyan. If you are a student who is not a great test taker, or you feel like your ACT or SAT scores don’t reflect your overall strengths as a student, then test-optional or test-flexible schools can be great options. The website Fairtest has the most up-to-date list of schools that are test-optional and/or test-flexible.

Let’s talk about the differences between test-optional and test-flexible.


Test-optional schools do not require the SAT or ACT to be considered for admissions. Colleges that have this policy put more weight on the other parts of your application, including your transcript, essays, recommendations, activities, and interview.

It is important to note that these colleges will consider test scores if you decide to submit them. The big question for most students is when to submit test scores and when not to submit test scores to test-optional colleges?

Colleges report their average test scores as a range. If your scores are above the 75% percentile number, we recommend submitting your test scores. If your scores are below the 25th percentile end of the range,we recommend you not submit them. If your test scores are right in the middle, they probably won’t help or hurt.

Notable Test-Optional Colleges and Universities

  • Bates College
  • Bowdoin College
  • University of Chicago
  • Colby College
  • George Washington University
  • Pitzer College
  • Smith College
  • Trinity College (CT)
  • Wake Forest University
  • Wesleyan University

Bottom line: Going test-optional makes a lot of sense if your courses and grades are rock solid, but your test scores are low.


Test-flexible colleges require test scores for all applicants, but students have a variety of options about which tests they submit. Test-flexible policies vary from college to college, but will generally allow students to submit a combination of SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests, Advanced Placement (AP) exam scores, and International Baccalaureate (IB) exam scores.

This makes sense for students who have a very specific interest, as they can submit SAT Subject Tests, AP scores, or IB scores in particular disciplines. For example, if you are a strong history student who hopes to study history in college, then submitting the AP US History, AP World History, and AP European History scores may be ideal. Test-flexible only makes sense if your ACT or SAT test scores are below the college’s 25th percentile OR your test-flexible scores are really stellar (i.e., your ACT is average for the college, but you received near perfect scores on multiple SAT Subject Tests).

Notable Test-Flexible Institutions

  • Brandeis University
  • Colby College
  • Colorado College
  • Hamilton College
  • Middlebury College
  • New York University
  • University of Rochester

Bottom line: If you are a “pointy” student who excels in a specific discipline, test-flexible admissions offers a great opportunity for you to focus on your academic strengths.

So now you may be wondering: what happened to Jessica? While she fell in love with Brown University, she was ultimately not admitted there. This was okay, as she wound up having some great college options including Wesleyan University, which is a lot like Brown but where she did not have to submit her ACT score. Instead, the Wesleyan admissions counselors were able to focus on Jessica’s strong grades and powerful personal essay.

Final Thoughts

At this point in the admissions process,you still have time to prepare for the SAT and ACT and we always encourage students to figure out which test makes the most sense for them, to prep for that test and take it once or twice. And double check if any of the colleges on your list require SAT Subject tests as well.

But remember there are over 1,000 schools that don’t require the SAT or ACT, so you have lots of options, even if standardized tests aren’t your strong suit.

For more info about college admission and scholarship essays and interviews, sign up for self-paced courses and our award-winning StoryBuilder writing platform FREE. Want to stay up to date on the latest tips and resources? Follow us @story2 on Instagram!

Will Geiger is co-founder of A graduate of Wake Forest and Penn, Will was previously Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Kenyon College where he personally reviewed over 10,000 admissions applications and essays and oversaw the merit aid program; Associate Director of College Counseling at a high school in New Haven, Connecticut; and Marketing Manager at Story2. 

Topics:college admissionsstandardized testing