The MuchSmarter Blog

The SAT, ACT And Test Optional Admissions: How to Help Your Teenager Prepare

Steve Schecter
September 11, 2020

Will your teenager need to do well on the SAT or ACT?  

This is a question worth asking. Two trends raise questions about the SAT and ACT's future:

1) the trend towards "test optional" admissions

2) questions about the fairness of standardized tests and whether they should be a part of the college admissions process

We at MuchSmarter don't have a crystal ball, but we have coached hundreds of students over the years to master difficult courses and standardized tests, and so we view the SAT and ACT through the lens of helping students achieve their goals.   

Let's look first at "test optional" and what it might mean for your teenager.  

Test optional admissions have been around for some time.  Some leading colleges have been test optional since the late 1960s.  Test optional means just that:  students may submit an SAT or ACT with their application but they are not required to.  

The big reason that schools cite for going "test optional" is a recognition that children of affluent families do better on standardized tests. Children of the affluent may receive a stronger education overall than non-affluent: they attend stronger schools and have more enrichment opportunities.  Children of the affluent can also spend much more on preparation for standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.  So "test optional' is a way for colleges to keep a wider door open for non-affluent candidates.  

So how do students respond to the availability of test optional admissions? The vast majority submit an SAT or ACT when applying to a test optional school. 

And test optional colleges actually find that their average SAT or ACT scores of admitted students increase, because students who don't have strong standardized tests don't submit their scores.  

There are some, calling standardized tests unfair,  who would like to eliminate the SAT and ACT altogether as a consideration for college admissions.  Even though this idea is advanced in the interest of fairness, it may actually work against those it's trying to help.  

In the absence of standardized testing, it is likely that admissions people will fall back on the quality of the high school in trying to distinguish among students with apparently equal grades and other credentials.  And, with certain exceptions of course, which students are most likely to attend the strongest high schools?  Right—the children of the affluent.

So here's what we think:  the trend to test optional will continue, but standardized tests will also continue to be a factor in admissions because they provide a way for admissions people to distinguish between candidates that high school grades don't and they provide an additional tool for students to distinguish themselves.


  • if your teenager plans to apply to highly competitive colleges
  • if they will most likely enter college programs that are academically rigorous 
  • if they want to position themselves for consideration for scholarships and fellowships, 
  • or if preparing for a standardized test will help them improve their academics overall,

…then no question, any or all of these are good reasons for your teenager. to prepare for an SAT or ACT! 

Test optional or not, we have never seen the SAT or ACT as a measure of a student's intelligence or, even more importantly, their value. 

We see the SAT and ACT as academic games of skill.  

We think they provide a worthy arena for students to sharpen their skills and enable them to make fuller use of their minds.  

If these SAT and ACT games have the additional advantage of helping your teenager get into the college of their choice,  then by all means encourage your teenager to learn to play -- and to enjoy the game along the way!

Talk soon.

- Steve

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