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What are test-optional colleges?

interstride logo by Interstride
August 24, 2023

As an international student researching colleges and universities in the US, you may have heard the phrase “test-optional colleges” but may be unsure what this relatively new concept means and how it affects you. The SAT/ACT requirement has previously been standard across colleges and universities in the US. High school students are used to prepping for it, thinking about your scores, and seeing how your scores fit into the school’s average. However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many schools made it optional for students to submit certain standardized test scores. After the pandemic ended, many schools have kept this policy.

What is test-optional?

Test-optional means some or all prospective students can apply to the college or university without submitting standardized test scores for college admissions, like the SAT or ACT. Some schools may be test-optional for some students but not others. For example, the University of New Orleans is test-optional for students from Louisiana but not from other states or from outside the US. Check the admissions requirements for international students carefully.  Note that while you might not need a standardized test score to get into a school, submitting test scores may qualify you for additional merit-based scholarships at some institutions such as Azusa Pacific University.

Applying test-optional has become more popular in the past few years, and this trend may continue as more schools adopt test-optional policies. This is occurring for a few reasons. During the COVID-19 pandemic, both domestic and international students had less access to testing sites, and the number of students taking these tests greatly decreased. Taking the SAT or ACT also comes with fees and a time commitment to properly study for the exams. For international students, there may be limited SAT/ACT testing sites in your country, and you may have to travel a great distance to take the exam.

In 2021, 44% of all college applicants submitted SAT/ACT test scores. However, the number of international students submitting scores from some countries was much lower. Only 19% of applicants from China and 26% of applicants from Canada submitted SAT/ACT test scores with their applications. Test-optional admissions removes some of the financial and physical barriers that may keep international students from applying. As a result, test-optional admissions are growing in demand for big-name schools and institutions have seen a surge in international applications.

What are the types of test-optional colleges?

There are three different types of test-optional schools:

  • Test-optional: Students can choose to submit test scores with their application or not. The admissions office will consider test scores if they are submitted, but you will not be penalized for not submitting them.
  • Test-flexible: Instead of the standard SAT or ACT, students can submit other test scores such as one or more SAT Subject Tests, Advanced Placement tests, or International Baccalaureate tests.
  • Test-blind: Sometimes called test-free, a test-blind college will not consider test scores as part of the admissions decision, even if you submit them.

Test-flexible and test-blind colleges are not common, but they do exist, so it’s important to understand the differences when considering your chances of acceptance to each institution. Furthermore, test-optional admission policies vary between schools. Some test-optional colleges and universities may still require test scores for international students. Other schools may require test scores for certain academic programs but not others. Lastly, some schools only allow you to skip the test score requirements if you meet specific academic qualifications such as a high GPA or class rank. Confirm each school’s policy for international students by contacting an admissions officer. You may be asked to submit additional materials in lieu of test scores.

Is test optional a good idea for international students?

Applying test-optional could be a good choice for you if you feel that the other parts of your application are strong and meet or exceed the average admitted student profile for the school. You can usually find the student profile on the school’s admissions webpage.

Consider sending test scores as an international student if:

  • Your GPA is lower than the average admitted student’s GPA
  • Your test scores are higher than the average admitted student’s test scores
  • You really want to stand out in a particular subject area
  • You feel that your application is weak in another area such as extracurricular activities or course difficulty
  • The school recommends (but not requires) test scores for international applicants

Consider applying test-optional as an international student if:

  • Your GPA is higher than the average admitted student’s GPA
  • Your test scores are lower than the average admitted student’s test scores
  • You cannot easily access a testing site or pay the required fee
  • You feel like your application is very strong in all other areas

What if all the schools on your interest list are test-optional? Should you still take an admissions test? The short answer is yes. While some students may not like taking tests, it won’t hurt you to try taking a free online SAT practice test. This will give you a good idea of what your score would be, so you can decide if it will help or hinder your application. Find the nearest SAT or ACT testing site, and determine how feasible it would be for you to get there and pay the test fee.

Interstride tips for applying to test-optional schools:

Remember, if you do not submit test scores, the other parts of your college application will carry more weight in the admissions decision. To maximize your chances of acceptance when applying to test-optional schools:

  1. Compile a holistically strong application
  2. Write a strong personal essay
  3. Acquire strong letters of recommendation from high school counselors and teachers


If the colleges you are applying to are test-optional for international students, you must do some research and self-reflection to determine whether submitting your scores would help or hurt your chances of admission. Here are some popular test-optional institutions:

SchoolSAT/ACT test policy for admissionsEnglish proficiency test policy for international students 
Bard CollegeTest-optional for all applicantsRequired for international students
Brown UniversityTest-optional for all applicantsHighly recommended
Emory University Test-optional for all applicantsRequired for international students
Harvard CollegeTest-optional for all applicantsTest optional
New York UniversityTest-flexible for all applicantsRequired for international students
Pitzer CollegeTest-blind for all applicantsRequired for international students
University of California, BerkeleyTest-blind for all applicantsRequired for international students
University of ChicagoTest-optional for all applicantsRequired for international students
University of Texas, AustinTest-optional for all applicantsRequired for international students
Washington State UniversityTest-blind for all applicantsRequired for international students