Matt O'Connor

Meet Matt, our expert researcher who's prepared to answer your questions: "Hi, I'll answer one question from the community per week utilizing expertise developed by conducting secondary research among news and analysis articles, books, test-related data, historical sources, and professional journals. In this I will be assisted by education professionals such as test prep and tutoring leaders, college admissions consultants, journalists, and college admissions officers. I'm looking forward to responding to your questions."


1. Do I have to achieve a high score on the SAT/ACT to be admitted to a selective US college or university? Among competitive schools, how many will consider applicants who don’t submit scores?

- Jan 29, 2018

A growing number of competitive US colleges and universities practice test optional admissions, admitting a portion of their incoming freshman class without consideration of test scores. In the aggregate, of the 1,062 US colleges and universities numerically ranked by US News in its 2018 edition, 303 or 29% are test optional or flexible, allowing students from all socioeconomic groups, geographic regions, and intended college majors to consider including test optional schools in their application plan.

Of the 172 National Liberal Arts colleges that were numerically ranked by US News in its 2018 edition of Best Colleges, exactly 50% are test optional or test flexible. Among such colleges ranked in the top 100, exactly 50% are also test optional or test flexible, including such elite institutions as Bowdoin College, Smith College, Wesleyan University, Bates College, Bryn Mawr and Holy Cross. Top test flexible* colleges (which require standardized test scores but accept scores from other exams) include Middlebury College, Colby College, Hamilton College, and Colorado College.

Of the 230 National Universities numerically ranked by US News, only 43 or 19% are test optional or flexible, and among the top 100-ranked National Universities, only 12% have such policies, revealing test optional policies to be relatively rare among top-ranked universities. Leading the way in this category are Wake Forest University, Brandeis University, George Washington University, and the test flexible institutions of the University of Rochester and New York University.

There are many excellent regional colleges and universities that practice test optional admissions. Among 478 regional universities numerically ranked by US News, 27% are test optional or flexible, including top-ranked schools such as Providence College, Fairfield University, Rollins College, Drake University, and Whitworth University.

Regional colleges include a similar percentage of test optional schools, at 26% of the 182 numerically ranked colleges. Top-ranked test optional regional colleges include Colby Sawyer College, High Point University, University of the Ozarks, and Oregon Institute of Technology.

For a more exhaustive list of test optional or test flexible colleges, see this Fair Test list of 1,000 institutions that de-emphasize SAT/ACT scores. FairTest also lists the top US News-ranked test optional colleges by category, and has compiled a chronology of test optional policy announcements.

Note: There are also many test optional and test flexible colleges and universities that are listed by US News, but are not numerically ranked. Among these 327 institutions (formerly called “2nd tier”), 16% are test optional or flexible, including Old Dominion University, Albright College, Portland State University, Wichita State University, and Emmanuel College.

*Test flexible colleges don’t mandate that applicants submit either SAT or ACT scores, but they do require the submission of some type of standardized test score. The most common tests accepted instead of the SAT or ACT are SAT II subject tests, International Baccalaureate tests, Advanced Placement exams, and TOEFL (for foreign students). Some colleges accept foreign National Exams, as listed on this page at Drexel University.

2. When colleges list their test score ranges of accepted (or enrolled) students, what does that mean?

- Feb 24, 2018

In past years, colleges usually released the average SAT/ACT scores of their incoming freshman class. However, colleges came to believe that students were misinterpreting their admissions chances based on these scores. For instance, if a college had an average freshman SAT score of 1100, and a student considering that school had scored 1050, the student might be less likely to apply to that college, simply because their score was “below average” for that school.

To avoid this, colleges have largely changed their test score reporting methods to focus instead on freshman test scores at the 25th and 75th percentiles. This means that students scoring at the 25th percentile scored above 25% of their fellow classmates, and students scoring at the 75th percentile scored above 75% of their incoming classmates. As an example, for the freshman class enrolling in the fall of 2017, Bates College in Maine (a highly selective school) had a 25th percentile score of 1270 and a 75th percentile of 1450. DePaul University had 25th/75th percentile ACT composite scores of 22/28. The concept behind releasing these percentile scores rather than an average score is to provide a snapshot view that gives students a quick indication of the “middle 50 percent” of scores. Students may be more likely to apply to a college if their scores fall within this range, even if their scores are below the 50th percentile (which would be close to an average score).

At many colleges (particularly the more selective ones), the lower test score ranges of a freshman class are often populated by students who had hooks— advantages such as athletic ability, legacy status, potential donor capability, or ethnic or geographical desirability.

Aside from the “middle 50%”, you can visualize your admissions chances in a slightly different way by analyzing the percentage of enrolled freshmen who scored in each test score range. These figures are available in section C9 in the Common Data Set reports filed by colleges. Here is the CDS for DePaul for 2017-18. This information (and more) is often available at the “institutional research” page on college websites. Here is an example for Davidson College.

Keep in mind that the average score on the new SAT (which debuted in March of 2016) has risen significantly due to the redesign of the test, from 1002 for the previous version to 1080 on the new SAT (in the 2016-17 testing year). When assessing your admissions prospects, look at the data for the version of the SAT you took.

3. Is it true that colleges offer more scholarships for better test scores? If yes, then it would seem worthwhile to invest in test prep? Should I go into debt to pay for better test prep, to get a better scholarship?

- Feb 24, 2018

In recent years it appears more financial aid dollars offered by colleges have been devoted to “merit aid” (awards based largely on high school GPA and SAT/ACT scores) at the cost of making less funding available for low-income students. See this Forbes article for a look at this issue.

Some colleges do offer more aid to students who have higher test scores, even when the minimum high school GPA to qualify for scholarships remains the same. For example, Auburn University has a number of scholarships that all require a minimum high school GPA of 3.5, but which have annual awards rising from $4,000 to $8,000 to $10,000 based on escalating SAT/ACT scores.

Given the potential merit aid increase from higher scores, and the perceived advantages of graduating from a more selective college, it might seem to make sense to focus on improving scores at virtually any cost. However, families and students considering busting the family budget or taking on debt to pay for test prep should consider that most students will have the option of enrolling in several suitable colleges where test scores are not considered or not the determining factor for scholarships, or may find that pricey target schools are still too pricey even after an offer of increased aid.

4. How many state colleges and universities are test optional? Are any flagship state universities test optional?

- Feb 24, 2018

Relatively few public colleges and universities are currently test optional. Traditionally, these schools have received a considerable number of applications (in part due to the lower cost of enrollment for in-state students versus private schools), and large public institutions have used standardized test scores as a quick method of narrowing the applicant pool.

In 2015, the University of Delaware announced a four-year pilot program under which in-state applicants can apply test optional for the fall of 2017. Unusually for a test optional college, UD provides specific guidance on score submission, stating on its website, “we recommend students who score a minimum of 1150 SAT or 23 ACT submit their scores.” For prospective science and math majors, the university also encourages the submission of AP test score and SAT II scores. Students who choose not to provide test scores must complete supplemental essays. To aid in assessing the effects of the program, admitted students must submit scores before they enroll.

The University of Arizona offers “assured admission” regardless of test scores to state residents who rank in the top 25% of their high school class, or have a high school GPA of 3.0 or higher. However, scores are required for entry to nursing and engineering programs. Lower-ranking and out-of-state applicants must also submit SAT/ACT scores for consideration.

At California State University, students with a high school GPA of 3.0 or better automatically qualify for admission, so SAT/ACT scores are not considered for these applicants.

Oklahoma State University offers assured admission to all students with a minimum high school GPA of 3.0 and who rank in the top third of their class.

Schools that are part of the University of Texas system generally admit students who are ranked in the top 10% of their high school class, without regard to test scores. (The exception is the flagship school UT Austin, which automatically admits about 75% of its freshmen each year according to class ranking; currently it does so by accepting students ranked in the top 7%). However, guaranteed admission to the university system does not include admission to the specific university or the college program sought by applicants. Due to the differing requirements of various programs within each university, SAT/ACT scores are still required and considered. Further, these policies only impact the top 10% or so of Texas highs school graduates. Students not ranked in the top 10% must also submit SAT/ACT scores for consideration at UT colleges. The 10% plan has generated some criticism due to the perceived advantage that students from academically weaker high schools might have over students from stronger schools who have higher GPA and test scores, and there have been discussions about altering or abolishing the policy.

For more test optional public options, speak to your guidance counselor, who should be up to speed on the options in your state and region.

5. When a school says it is test optional, do they really mean it? How does it work? Am I truly not disadvantaged in the admissions process if I don’t send in my score? What is the difference between test flexible and test optional?

- Feb 24, 2018

Colleges each have their own way of assessing students during admissions consideration, and this extends to how they consider test optional applicants.

If you are considering applying test optional to a particular college, read the school’s website page regarding their testing policy carefully. Many schools clearly state that test optional applicants will not be disadvantaged versus score-submitting students. A few test optional colleges have language that suggests that they are less enthusiastic about the policy, and in fact state that score submission is not mandatory, but is recommended. A few colleges set a percentage limit for test optional students among the admitted class.

One way to determine if a college assesses students who do not submit scores with equanimity is to consider the percentage of admitted students and/or freshman enrollees that did not provide SAT/ACT scores. If you can’t find this information on a college’s website, locate someone in the admissions office and ask for it.

For a more skeptical opinion on the promise that test optional candidates will not be disadvantaged, see Sally Rubenstone’s piece at College Confidential here.

Many test optional colleges require students applying for merit aid or certain scholarships to submit scores. Some colleges have mandatory or recommended minimum high school GPAs for students to apply test optional.

Another common practice is to require scores from students applying for certain programs (medicine, nursing, and engineering are the most common). Test optional applicants are also sometimes required to provide extra essays, graded papers, or teacher recommendations.

Nearly all test optional colleges do require scores from home-schooled students, those who wish to participate as NCAA athletes, and foreign students.

Test flexible colleges don’t mandate that applicants submit either SAT or ACT scores, but they do require the submission of some type of standardized test scores. The most common tests accepted instead of the SAT or ACT are SAT II subject tests, International Baccalaureate tests, Advanced Placement exams, and TOEFL (for foreign students). Some colleges accept National Exams, as listed on this page at Drexel university.

Be aware that most test flexible colleges want to see one test score for a subject related to literature/English/humanities, one for mathematics, and sometimes a third score of the student’s choice.

Colleges and universities that are currently test flexible include Colby College, Colorado College, Drexel University, Hamilton College, Middlebury College, New York University, and the University of Rochester.

The number of test flexible colleges has dwindled a bit in recent years, as some test flexible colleges have become test optional. Among these are Bryn Mawr, Connecticut College, Furman University, and Trinity College.

6. How should I decide whether I should take the ACT or SAT?

- Feb 24, 2018

All colleges in the US accept the SAT and ACT, so the decision regarding which test to take should be left to the student’s preference.

After the recent redesign of the SAT (a new version debuted in March 2016) the two exams are not as different from one another as in past years, but some students will still perform noticeably better on one test than the other.

To help determine which test might deserve more of your attention, after a few weeks’ study time for each test, take timed practice tests for both the SAT and ACT, preferably in a controlled environment such as a classroom. You may quickly develop a clear preference for one test over the other after wrestling with the content and style of each exam in a formal setting.

The ACT is more of a rapid-fire challenge, as students must answer 215 questions in 175 minutes, which works out to 49 seconds per question. The SAT tasks students with 154 questions in 180 minutes, allowing a more generous 70 seconds per question. The advantage for the SAT is not as clear-cut as it might seem, however, as the SAT features questions that on average require more reading. This has included the SAT math questions as well, a considerable number of which were apparently made more “wordy” than the College Board intended, a problem that is being addressed, according to the organization’s president.

Students who struggle with math may take solace from the fact that the SAT lists many of the required formulas at the beginning of each math test, while the ACT does not.

Most colleges will select the highest scores a student received on each section of the SAT (even if those peak scores occurred across multiple tests) to create a composite score called a SuperScore. Here is a College Board list of policies by college, but make sure to verify the policy for each college under consideration. PrepScholar offers another useful SuperScore list. SuperScoring is less common regarding the ACT, as most colleges simply take the highest composite ACT score from a single sitting. However, the number of ACT-SuperScoring colleges is increasing.

Both exams offer free test score reporting, test fee waivers for lower-income students (which can be used for “national” test days even if a student’s state gives the other test as part of a state contract), and accommodations for students who require extra time, large print, etc.

7. Can I get a copy of my test Questions and Answers on actual SAT /ACT tests?

- Apr 13, 2018

Yes, both the SAT and ACT make test questions and answers available to students who took the tests on several specified test dates each year. Here is information about receiving a copy of official ACT and SAT questions and answers.

For certain national test dates each year, ACT offers a service called Test Information Release (TIR), which allows students to receive a copy of the multiple-choice test questions used to determine their score, a list of their answers, and the answer key. For students who took the writing test, a copy of the writing prompt, the scoring rubric, and the scores assigned to the essay will be delivered.

Students can order the TIR products either when they register for the ACT, or later (within 3 months of their test date). The cost is $20. The next two TIR test dates are Saturday, April 14th, and Saturday, June 9th. The response time is usually 3-5 weeks.

The College Board offers a Question-and-Answer Service for students that includes:

> A booklet copy of the SAT questions and a report showing a student’s answers from the specific test administration
> The correct answers and additional scoring instructions
> Information about the type and difficulty of test questions

The Saturday SAT administrations given each year in October and March for the US and Canada are typically made part of the Question-and-Answer service, as is the Saturday SAT given in May (on a worldwide basis). Students can sign up for the Q&A Service either at the time of test registration, or later, within 5 months after their eligible test date. The cost is $18, with a fee waiver available to students who took the SAT via waiver.

The periodic release of test questions (in the form of entire tests known as “test forms”) began after the passage of the “Truth in Testing” law in New York (which took effect in 1980), and which mandated the release of tests “used in the process of selection for postsecondary or professional school admissions.” The College Board decided to make releasing test questions a nationwide policy in 1981, after a year in which fewer SATs were administered in New York due to the law (which mandates the release of 2/3 of all tests given each year).

The requirement to release a portion of each year’s test questions might have contributed to the re-use in Asia of some SAT test forms that had already been administered in the US (but not released publicly), leading to questions of test security and the granting of an unfair testing advantage to overseas students. Such issues might be mitigated in the near future by the creation of larger test question “banks” for both tests, and by the advent of online testing for the SAT and ACT.

This article by Jon Boeckenstedt (Associate VP for Enrollment at DePaul University) raises the prospect that the College Board and ACT may be trying to weaken the “truth in testing” laws, though ACT, Inc. denies this. For more background, the ACT will not be administered in California in July 2018, due to California’s law mandating the release of 50% of test forms administered each year.

8. I understand that the SAT and ACT are used in some states for the end of high school mastery exams. Have those tests ever been validated for such a use? Will this affect what is taught in high school?

- Apr 14, 2018

Most students and parents are familiar with the SAT and ACT as college entrance examinations.

In recent years, however, the SAT and ACT have been adopted by many states for federal accountability purposes as an assessment of students’ mastery of the high school curriculum—and the exams were neither designed nor validated for this purpose.

Fifteen states currently use the SAT and/or ACT to “assess” student’s mastery of the high school curriculum, despite the lack of multi-year, independent studies supporting such adoption. Another half dozen states are considering plans to use the exams as high school assessments.

Several recent studies have cast doubt on the use of the exams to assess high school performance.

Two recent studies (commissioned by Florida and by Delaware and Maine) assessing SAT/ACT alignment with state standards have determined that some current content on the exams should be revised or replaced (particularly on the math sections) in order to achieve alignment.

A study published in 2018 by found significant misalignment between the ACT and the Common Core state standards in English Language Arts and math. The Achieve study offered the following recommendation:

States should not use the ACT or SAT as the statewide accountability measures for ELA and mathematics. …using the ACT or SAT as the primary measure of mathematics and ELA achievement for accountability is ill-advised for both alignment considerations and technical reasons.

In a summary of the findings of the Achieve study, along with those of several other independent analyses into SAT/ACT alignment with state standards, Achieve writes:

...neither the ACT nor College Board, the developer of the SAT, developed these tests as measures of how well students are meeting state mathematics and English language arts (ELA) standards, which is the primary purpose of state accountability tests. When they are used as a state’s mathematics and ELA tests — when they “count” for schools, educators, and students — there is the greatest likelihood that they will drive classroom instruction more than state standards do.

The incentive to alter the high school curriculum to more closely match the SAT/ACT was already present when they were solely used as college entrance exams, but the prospect of adapting the curriculum to mirror the tests will become a near certainty when the nationwide exams are also the measuring stick for the meeting of state standards.

A number of district or state administrators in Illinois (a state that recently switched from the ACT and PARCC to the SAT as both a college entrance exam and high school curriculum mastery assessment) have stated that they will consider adjusting the high school curriculum to more closely match the SAT. In addition, one teacher in Florida recently revealed that students in all language arts classes from grades 9-12 spend up to a half hour per day preparing for the SAT through the Khan Academy website.

These developments seem to validate the concerns raised by James S. Murphy, Princeton Review’s Director of Tutoring, in his article, “The SAT: A New Core Subject in Schools?” Murphy quotes Brendan Mernin, a founding tutor at, as stating, “The SAT is supposed to show what you got out of your schoolwork. It is not supposed to be the schoolwork.”

The College Board claims to have conducted studies that determined that the SAT is aligned “with the current standards in all 50 states.” However, these have not been released to the public. ACT, Inc. has stated that it does not believe that “measuring assessment of state academic standards and assessment of college preparedness are mutually exclusive”, but has suggested (unlike the College Board) a willingness to consider augmenting the ACT to improve alignment.

The Achieve study, as well as the studies commissioned by Florida and by Delaware and Maine suggest that it is the SAT and ACT that should be adjusted to meet statewide and/or Common Core educational standards, rather than having state standards or the high school curriculum altered to mirror the exams.

The SAT is currently used as whole or part of the high school assessment for federal accountability purposes in the following states: CO, CT, DE, IL, ME, MI, NH, OH, OK, RI, and WV.

The ACT is currently used as whole or part of the high school assessment for federal accountability purposes in the following states: AL, LA, MT, NE, ND, OH, OK, and WI.