Test optional when just below the median for accepted students?

I’m struggling with whether it makes sense for my daughter (rising senior) to submit an ACT score of 33 to schools where the median is a 34 - this applies to several of her reach schools where her unweighted GPA, rigor, etc are in an OK-to-decent range for the school but not going to put her over the top on their own. On this board, and elsewhere, I see two schools of thought over whether to submit a slightly below median test score:

First school of thought: Submit the score. It’s definitely still within the middle 50% range for accepted students, and, if not submitted, admissions officers will likely assume that the student received a much lower score than a 33. Plus a 33 is a darned good score.

Second school of thought: Don’t submit the score. Since the 33 is below the median, it will “drag down” the school’s median ACT average for accepted applicants which is factored into its USNWR rating, ie, the school faces a “penalty” for accepting this student.

I’m honestly torn here - is it a school specific question? Ie, if she was applying to Tulane (she’s not) which is known to have openly told applicants not to submit below-median test scores, then don’t submit? But, lacking that type of specific guidance from the school, assume it’s better the submit the score?

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I believe your question would have greater relevance if it were phrased in the context of a comparison to attending students.

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Struggling with a similar issue with DD23 who also has a 33 ACT. If every student does not submit scores below 50 percent then the ACTs averages will eventually be 35-36. During the pandemic I think highly rejective schools were truly test optional as students really could not take the test.

This year, I don’t think a 33 is competitive for a T20 school unless you have a hook. If she got all 5s on her APs I would submit that instead. If you don’t have a hook, likely she won’t get in test optional or not.

My DD23 is not applying to a T20 school but considering applying to Emory (main campus only) and UVA (OOS). I don’t think the 33 helps or hurts her ( it’s in that just lower than 50 percent middle range) but as an upper middle class Caucasian girl I would suspect that that school would wonder why she didn’t submit. She is submitting her 33 ACT, competitive GPA, good ECs ( but no hook) and understands they are Reach schools.

No one can tell you if a 33 will help or hurt her, just know that either way it’s a reach. Consider applying ED to increase chances.


why do you feel this way?

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Personally I would submit a score that is 98th percentile.

A reach is a reach even if that score was higher. Have a balanced list with a true safety and take the shot.


This is what is happening. The year before Covid affected admissions, the average SAT score of accepted students at NYU was a 1440. The first year of Covid it was a 1540.

So, who is being accepted to schools that are submitting test scores below the 25th percentile:

  • Underepresented minorities
  • Recruited athletes
  • First generation/low income applicants
  • Students with exceptional ECs
  • Students whose families have donated a crazy amount of money
  • Children of faculty/staff
  • Students on a special list of the University President (for various reasons)

If you don’t fall in one of those categories, sending a low test score likely does more harm than good.


@fladadK4Q agree when it’s below 25 percent range not to submit. But what about when it’s just below the 50 percent range? I think that is what the OP was asking… I think the answer depends, especially when it’s a 33.

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It does seem ridiculous not to submit a 98th% score. But the reality is, in the era of test-optional, the time to submit the score is if it confirms a high GPA, or implies higher academic ability/achievement than the GPA implies.

So, if the student has a high GPA from a low-performing school, an ACT of 33 looks great, and tells the college that the student has the ability and preparation to do the work at that college. This is why students who are URM or from rural schools are often advised to submit that good but not perfect test score.

For the student who is not URM or from a very low performing high school, if they have the very high GPA and awards that imply the absolutely top notch academic achievement necessary to get into highly selective schools, but a test score that is very good, but not stellar, it might harm them rather than help them.

So if the student is not from a racial/ethnic/economic group with historically low scores, and their test score is less impressive than the rest of their application, and they’re trying for highly selective schools, I’d say go test-optional. If the student is from a background where the school might worry that despite their very high GPA, they may not be ready for a highly selective college, then definitely do submit that just below the median test score.


I would submit a 33 but you will get varying opinions on this board and I am not sure who is correct.


So what is going to happen now with even taking the SAT? Are high performing kids who have practice SATs below 1500 even going to bother?

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I would submit the 33 because otherwise they might assume it is even lower


Not sure if Merit aid is a consideration at all, but D26, 3.98 UW GPA, only got Merit at the schools where she did not submit her score.

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First off, I’m suspicious of the advice of the Admissions Officers… It’s not their job to help applicants get into their college. They can’t. If they are accepting 5,000 out of 50,000… that remains true, whether people are test optional or not.

So they aren’t telling students to apply test optional as a way of helping the student. They are saying it because it helps that somehow. It certainly doesn’t help them better evaluate the student – Less information is not going to create a more informed evaluation than more information.
So they are telling students to apply Test optional because it somehow helps the school – Basically, increasing their median enrolled SAT score improves their prestige, their rankings, etc.

But it is an unsustainable model — If in Year1, the median act is 33… but only people over the median submit scores, and they only accept people with scores over the median… then in Year2, the median will be 34. Since almost nobody below a 33 submitted and was accepted! And then… in year 3, for the same reason, median ACT would be 35!

So now as they go into year 4… Virtually nobody is submitting scores anymore. This hypothetical school isn’t Harvard. So they are stuck with the choice – Only admit people who were test optional, as well the small group of 35+ ACTs… Or, you might have to actually admit more people below that median.
Eventually, the school has a choice – Either they can go to US News and tell them that only 5% of our enrolled students submitted test scores – But they were all 35+! Meanwhile, they are rejecting lots of clearly qualified candidates who submitted 34’s, while accepting less qualified TO candidates to fill the gap…
Or, the school has to say to itself, “yeah… we will take those 34’s… Our median score isn’t going to get any higher…and we need to report that a decent percentage of our students actually submitted scores…”

After a couple cycles of test optional, I think we are getting to that point – Where schools need to decide whether they are just trying to rig the numbers in favor of ever-higher test scores, or whether they have gone as high as they can.
In that context, I’d lean in favor of submitting any score over the 25th percentile.
It’s possible that I’m giving bad advice. Yes, the school might see acceptance as a negative as it lowers their potential averages. But a school might still see it as an overall positive – Get to report another student who submitted a score, and the student didn’t really lower the average compared to prior recent years.


Agree with all of your points that it is an unsustainable progression in the long term. But, we’re stuck with it for this year, and it’s super hard to know what to do. My instinct has been, and is, to go ahead and submit the 33. But, I’ve seen enough discussion that suggests doing the opposite that it still leaves me feeling torn.

Emory IS a top 20 school, and UVA is close… A 33 is enough, that doesn’t mean your child will be accepted but it doesn’t take them out of the running.


I disagree with all those who assume that an AO will assume a student didn’t get a good score if they fail to submit. (Having said that, a very high score doesn’t hurt.)

More and more kids are taking colleges at their word when the college says they are test optional. I think a lot of kids simply don’t bother taking the tests because by now, people realize what is happening, as stated above: only people with really high scores (99th percentile) are submitting, which is making average test scores submitted skew higher.

So while kids are still taking tests (in much lower numbers than previously), more and more are not submitting scores. As a tutor, I can vouch that fewer kids are testing, at least in my affluent area outside a major metropolis. They aren’t testing because they know that a lot of schools aren’t requiring scores. Anecdotal, but probably true of what’s happening around much of the country.

I don’t think AOs can be bothered trying to guess who tested but didn’t submit, and who never took tests at all.


@Maryland85 I agree they are fantastic highly selective schools - US News ranks Emory 21 and UVA 25… neither is a T20… however ratings are not perfect but in my opinion they are considered a minor tier lower than Ivys or their equivalents.

At our Emory info session the AO specifically said that although they are test optional if you don’t submit your scores, you need to submit something else compelling on your application ( I felt she was referring maybe to AP scores or another measure that indicated you could handle the required academic rigor). No hook, no test score… reason for rejection.

I also believe for more middle tier private schools, with more than 35 percent acceptance rates, test scores are less important if the rest of the application is strong.


US news isn’t the only only ranking out there (maybe times/WSJ) and the fact you’re trying your best to honestly make a difference between 20 and 21 is weird. Most sane people know there’s no difference between Berkeley, Emory and Notre Dame or the other schools ranked 15-20. They could easily switch places next year, and they have before.


Heck yeah submit especially if all four sections are 30+.

34 I’d the median. So half are below.

That is not going to be why you are accepted or not accepted.

This is not last year. More and more are submitting tests because some now require it and a few others are showing acceptance by test and not and guess who gets in at a higher level. Yes the test taker.

Also, while not relevant here, those who have auto merit tables give a lot more to those with test scores than those TO.

You have a 33. One point below the median. No brainer here. This is class of 26, not 25.

Good luck

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@Maryland85 last I checked this wasn’t a debate forum and calling someone opinion “weird” is offensive. Emory is a great school - one my daughter is considering applying to ED but in my opinion it is not at the same level as HYP, Stanford,Duke or MIT where a 33 would very likely not make the cut for a non-hooked student (even ED. Would you feel better if I said T15 instead of T20? Really?

My point for separating the schools this way for the OP is that for the 34-36 range schools I would not submit the score but for Emory where the range for main campus is 33-35 I would submit a 33 based on what the AO told me in my info session, but understand it’s still a reach.

I am not here to debate ranking with you - I am giving my opinion with my school of thought. That is the purpose of this thread.