"No penalty for not submitting test scores" - really? None at all?

It all sounds warm and fuzzy, the holistic evaluation of the candidate, and “you will not be penalized should you choose to submit an application without test scores.”
But this is an inherently brutal process, eliminating up to 96-97% percent.
So how will it work in practice, when an AO compares two similarly accomplished candidates, one without test scores, and another with a score, let’s say right in the middle of their acceptance range?
How about 75% range?
Will a “hypothetical” score be attached to a score-less candidate for comparison purposes?
Will an excellent test result seen just like any another academic accomplishment outside the classroom?
I realize some colleges have decades of experience in TO - but suddenly, almost every college will do that, with no learning curve… Do you expect a bias toward those who do submit scores, and only those with truly exceptional ECs and perfect grades will be seriously considered score-free? Otherwise, it would seem almost like penalizing those who went through all the trouble of testing this year.
I would love to hear from admission experts but of course everyone is welcome to chime in.

It depends upon the school, the AO, the application itself, the test scores, if submitted. The category of applicants who will most benefit from the optional/no test scores scene are those who have excellent applications but low and mediocre test scores as compared to what the school reports as usual fare, and those who could not get tests scheduled and taken. IMO, those with super high test scores also have an advantage simply because there are likely fewe of such scores submitted. Now if a school is truly being 100% test score blind, and not looking at the score at all, then that category would not be advantaged. But, seriously, you can’t unsee something you see, and human nature can always play a role in decisions

So, yes, if your kid has test scores that are highly favorable for admissions to a school, submit them unless their instructions are very specific not to do so.

It’s a juggling situation, decisions to be made for the vast majority of applicants whose test scores are in the mid stream of the colleges’ stays. I say, leave them out unless the kid is way up there, well in the top 25% of the score spectrum, but that’s my opinion. If the scores are lowish, don’t submit. If they are high submit.

We toured a college with D20 (I can’t recall which one) and they said they had a box on the application to check if you weren’t sure if you should apply with your SAT/ACT score or TO and someone would look at your score and determine if it should be included or not and the application was treated the way that staff member decided. Sure enough, when she applied, that question was indeed on the app. Seemed strange at the time because I agree, once you see something you can’t unsee it but that was their policy.

Unless there is a complete separation between those who see the results and those who later make the admission decision.

Personally I think it’s almost impossible not to favor the applicant who submits a good score because it’s human nature to assume the applicant without a score didn’t score well. Why else would they omit the score?

That being said I think this year could be different because so many kids are being closed out of the testing process.

However, there will be those students that did take the test and received their 1590, 1600 or 35 or 36 and it’s not going to disadvantage them to submit it. Even if it’s just subliminally, they will seem more prepared and organized having checked off one more application requirement than other applicants.


I think this will be reality. Schools had to make applications test-optional due to the logistical challenges of just taking a test and getting a score. But the reality is that student A receiving “no penalty” and Student B receiving a positive for a high test score results in a disadvantage to student A. There may be no absolute disadvantage but there is a relative disadvantage.

Some kids could not get to a test site. Many closed. So, some do not have test scores. Such a situation would be a disaster in earlier years. This year, colleges are mitigating such situations.

Disclaimer: I’m an incoming First-Year at Brown who took the ACT last year and applied before admissions policies changed, so my advice is somewhat based on a “normal” admissions cycle.

As many other posters have stated here, definitely submit your score if it’s within the 25th-75th range for the college (you can find this with a Google search for “College Name Class Profile.”)

Yes, while this year colleges are definitely adjusting their admissions policies based on the circumstances, I’ve learn that your academics (test scores/GPA/courses,) are HOW Admissions is able to evaluate your ability to cope with the coursework. It’s only after they’re sure that you’ll be handle the college’s curriculum that they then turn to the other parts of your application (essays, interview, letters of recommendation etc) that show how you believe this college is the best fit for you by the specific resources available there (shown through your essays, so make every word count, and by how you’ve taken advantage of your own school’s resources,) but also by how you’ll go on from that college to become a successful Doctor, Lawyer, Researcher etc: someone the college will be proud to call their graduate in the future.

TL; DR: Submit test scores if you have them and they are within the 50 percentile range for the college. It’s another way to prove to the college that you can handle the rigors of a college coursework, but if you don’t have a test score or don’t want to submit it, that’s fine as well. Just make sure you have other evidence (strong grades in challenging courses, extracurricular activities that might be academic focused etc) that the college can look to to evaluate your ability to cope with their college’s coursework.

Also, I highly recommend that you apply Early Decision (always apply early action if you have a choice because it shows demonstrated interest and can qualify you for scholarships) to your top choice if ALL of the following are true:

  1. You LOVE the school and would 110% attend if admitted (this shouldn't be b/c of brand name or prestige, but because of specific resources such as alumni internships, college's curriculum etc at the school.)
  2. You are extremely confident that you can present a well thought out and crafted application by the early decision deadline, which is typically November 1st.
  3. You and your family can afford the college if admitted (run the financial aid calculators on the college's website if applicable.)

Hope this helps @ArtsyKidDad ! Good luck with admissions!

Oh, dear. It depends on the college and how competitive.

Scores are a data point. Most kids have no experience with an application of this sort and significance. It’s a huge challenge to put forth a great app. Fact is, mediocre or borderline stats won’t help you. Missing stats are the missing piece of the puzzle. And it does beget the question, why you’re applying to a college above your own achievements.

You dont get in because you’re Ms or Mr Nice Guy. You need to match what they look for, all of it. And btw, many colleges, certainly top ones, are focused on your 4 year experience, not post college successes. They dont want to know how you’ll become an important doctor or lawyer. They do want to see drives you pursued, challenges you took on, breadth, not just depth, and more. They’re building a community.

The colleges that successfully use TO work hard to read between the lines. It’s daunting.

I’m just a parent and not an advisor. I noted that on the common app that my son’s schools are making you click a firm TO or not TO (much to our dismay because he won’t be able to get a new test result until late October at the earliest). Most or even all of these were previously not TO. One school even says you can’t change TO status and submit a test score later.

I have a theory that AOs will make two buckets. I suspect that the smaller bucket for many schools will likely be all of the T submitting students and so it would make sense to tackle them first since they will require less time to review. Maybe they put the Ts who would have been admitted in prior years in the yes pile. Perhaps they then shave off (or defer) some of the lower end / maybes of the T group to compare with the TO kids. If this practice is adopted, it seems like submitting a T would be an advantage.

The tricky part (as discussed above) is the cutoff for the score you should submit and it would be nice to get some guidance from the colleges asap. Certainly 75% mark is an easy choice. Midpoint, we will submit. Below that the common opinion seems to be not to submit. But, the vast majority of the kids in this cycle probably didn’t get the chance to take multiple tests / superscore or do section retesting so perhaps the overall test scores are lower for this group than 2019-2020 and I’m wondering if maybe just below the midpoint might be good to submit, especially if it’s not a T25 or T50 school.

For some state schools where acceptance decisions depend upon 3 numbers—class rank or gpa, SAT or ACT test score, and date your application is received, one can see that if the system eliminates the test score, the kind of effect it will have in outcome.

For someone with lowish GPA, and who tests well, the loss of that piece of info can be critical. On the other hand, someone with lowish test scores, but who is an excellent student can really up chances of admissions. Getting that app in as early as possible becomes even more crucial. I remember back 20 years ago of a certain GC who would drive to Penn State with student apps in hand to get them into the AO’s hands as soon as that office opened. His kid were not going to miss a day , or even a place in line for that number which was part of the admissions matrix.

^ This is why we’d need to know names of colleges, or at least types or tiers. It’s going to be easier to get into some schools, from the get-go, based on factors they deal with. Harder at others.

People say AU needs to feel the love. Maybe. They’re a fine college but a backup for many kids. They still want the yield. You need to understand what they see as an ideal admit. Understand how you match, plus things like major, what you actually took on through hs, how you present. Even the impact of their geo diversity goals. That’s more than a simple “similarly accomplished candidates” and “right in the middle of their acceptance range.”

It’s a tough decision to go TO. Many kids have lopsided scores. Or a poor showing in an AP that matters.

If they aren’t in the situation @cptofthehouse describes, you need a different strategy.

Schools are often not upfront and clear about how they operate. Penn State is one school that used to be very clear that the 3 numbers were what Drive admissions decisions MOST OF THE TOME. Doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. A lot of exceptions. But as a general rule, unless you are in some special category, or have a special circumstance, that was the way to go. The Guidance Counselor who sat waiting with applications in hand to be first in line had years of experience with the school, knew the AOs at Penn State, but he still went through the paces.

I remember an athlete on the verge of acceptance at Ohio State being asked to submit the optional essay for additional consideration one year— when she had included the essay. It had not even been noted and the AO that year flat out admitted they had virtually no value in admissions decisions .

Test scores generally count double of any other criteria for most upper middle class unhooked kids. Grades/class rank , difficulty of curriculum, recs, essays, ECs and test scores are not equally considered, according to the AOs I know.

So now many colleges are saying they will not penalize for not submitting the test scores. I think that’s a broad sweeping statement that does not cover all circumstances. Those kids who couldn’t get a test slot, perhaps they GC will say so in the school rec. Grades and difficulty of curriculum as well as other parts of the app will have far more weight. No AP or SAT test scores? Well, how do kids at that school usually do on AP tests? That is info contained in the school profile. Selective colleges that spend a lot of time on admissions know what schools average a 2-3 on the AP chem test, and those that average 4-5. Of course, they do.

I though that when I wrote: “But this is an inherently brutal process, eliminating up to 96-97% percent” I clarified the tier. I was talking about highly and extremely selective colleges, with the overall admission rates from single digits up to, let’s say, slightly over 20%.
I realize that a small LAC will be able equipped to sift through candidates using the holistic criteria than Tulane or USC so the larger the institution, the more puzzling the TO process seems to me.
I didn’t mean to hide any relevant data point but it was more than an anxious-parents-desperately-looking-for-an-advice post, I’m genuinely interested in the mechanics of the system.
As for my D21 from Chicago, she was unable to take PSAT (teacher strike), then had ACT scheduled for March, school SAT in April, ACT in May, June and July, so 6 cancellations total, and is currently scheduled for SAT on 8/29 and ACT on 9/13. I believe she will do very well but who knows.
She is applying to a long list of LACs, from very selective to relatively safe, and her safeties are real safeties, i.e. she would be happy to end up there. Plus a few “inspirational” applications to a very selective larger institutions.
Her stats, a top-notch public school, curriculum rigor, very good writing skills, enthusiastic recs and an interesting mix of ECs give us some hope that we are not wasting our money aiming at Wellesley, Middlebury, Georgetown SFS and the likes.

In situations like this, I recommend having two lists of schools pairing up like schools. Like Amherst with Williams, Gettysburg with Dickinson, and treating one group one way and the other the other way. I suggest that with edgy risky essays as well as other things that could make or break decisions overall—or so the applicant believes.

With top colleges, single digit or up to 20%, the slightest hair out of place can doom you. Sorry, but the competition is that fierce.

This is very unlike high school competitions, awards, or honors. Adcoms don’t know you. They glean an idea of your thinking via the choices you made through hs and in the app. It’s not what you “say,” that promise to be a dedicated doc or cure world hunger. It’s what you “show” about yourself, your energy, actions, etc.

Now, missing scores, or with a mediocre showing (compared with other applicants,) of course they can pick the more certain bets. Toss in their desire for geo diversity, balance in majors, gender, etc, other wild cards.

The trick is in understanding what that college likes and looks for. Having that evident in your academics and activities. Not being just good or great in your one hs pool. Not spike.

The more you learn about Wellesley, Midd, and SFS, the better. The more she reached outside the hs box, got involved real world, the better.

So in your opinion, when the Ivies and their LAC equivalents announced their test optional policy, it was to create the warm and fuzzy feeling that they care about the unfortunate students unable to take the test while in reality, unless a non-test student can show something like a paper in Nature/ IMO Gold Medal/ Carnegie Hall recital, they are basically screwed, just improving the institution’s rejection statististics? I’m not sure how else: “Now, missing scores, or with a mediocre showing … of course they can pick the more certain bets” can be understood.

I’m not sure how this relates to either my initial question, or what I added later but I’m assuming you wanted to warn me (us) about unrealistic expectations, and I appreciate it.

The whole TO decision feels perilous to me. Hard to know the right decision. Of course, some folks simply couldn’t get test scores so the decision has been made for them…

@NateandAllisMom – I think we’re feeling the same as you. Initially, I didn’t think my S21 would submit a test score unless it was at least 50th percentile. After two cancellations, as of last week, my S has an ACT score in hand that is just slightly below that for most of his schools and he’s re-thinking. His thought is that scores across the board will be lower this year b/c of fewer attempts. (Our local schools, for example, stopped testing in March and won’t for the rest of the year.)

So his current plan is to submit a score if it is within range, i.e., above (but not exactly at) 25th percentile. I think this covers all his colleges but one big reach so he wouldn’t submit a score to them.

This is different from the ‘only submit if it’s 50th percentile or above’ wisdom I’ve been reading, so I would love more crowdsourcing insights on this approach.

FYI, my S21 has a 4.0 and lots of rigor at a top public HS. Decent ECs but nothing amazing. I feel like a test score that is ‘in range’ confirms his abilities, but isn’t needed to prove them, if that makes sense.

What say you wise CC folks?

What is bothering me is that some schools’ TO statements go something like this - “if your test score shows your ability, then send it and, if it doesn’t add to your app, then don’t send it.”

What about the kids who have no score. AOs know that’s happened to kids right? And it’s not about regions of the country necessarily. It’s become a little random. Here, in the Chicago area, some July ACT locations had their tests and some didn’t. And some were cancelled ahead of time and kids couldn’t find another seat and some were cancelled the day of the test. So, some AO might think “well, I know some other student in this pile took the ACT in July so why doesn’t this student in front of me have a score?” I hope they just don’t think the student had a poor showing and get that they might not have gotten a seat.

Our D is signed up for Sept, Oct, Nov SATs after having March, April, May and August cancelled. I refuse to drive her two hours to a test for August and risk that it will be cancelled when we pull up. Her school is supposedly having an Oct weekday test for the seniors. If that does happen, which I doubt, it might be her only test. No pressure or anything. I’m glad she has some schools on her list that have either been TO for years or are planning a three year trial of TO. She definitely has some schools on her list that I think are just going along with TO because they have to.

I really wonder if we will see how many TO candidates each school accepts. No matter the breakdown, people are going to not like it.

@homerdog – I’m beginning to think students should mention their specific cancellations in the COVID section to give AOs that info so they have the context of their particular testing situation.

It could be very short – If applying TO, your D could write “I had four SATs cancelled in 2020 due to COVID.” What do you think of that idea?