As colleges decide to continue with test optional admissions or mandate test scores, students aren’t sure what to expect when it comes to prepping for the SAT and ACT. Should they prep for the test and try their best, or not stress it if they can apply test optional? Honestly, it depends.

While the University of California has adopted a permanent test blind policy and Harvard has temporarily extended a test optional policy until 2026, the University of Florida, University of Tennessee, MIT, and Georgetown University will require all class of 2023 applicants to submit test scores. So, what does this mean for high school students when it comes to test prep?

We encourage every student to prep for and take the SAT or ACT spring of junior year at the latest. PSAT and/or practice test scores can indicate how well you might score on the actual test and guide how to best prep for the test. Even if you don’t think you’ll score well or don’t plan on submitting scores to schools, you should have at least one set of scores in case you need them.

When applying to college, the goal is to align your GPA, test scores, course selection, and extracurricular activities so they highlight your strengths, not your weaknesses. A 4.0 GPA paired with a 900 SAT score highlights your work ethic and motivation in high school, but the low test score undermines your potential college performance. On the other hand, a 2.4 GPA and 1350 SAT score demonstrates a high potential for academic success in college, but the low GPA indicates challenges in high school coursework. For a moderately competitive school, a strong applicant might have a 3.7 GPA and 1280 test score, emphasizing a strong work ethic and promise for college success.

Let’s break down a few scenarios and consider how to best prep for the test.

High GPA and high PSAT scores

If you have a high GPA and scored well on the PSAT, you’ll likely want to submit test scores with your application. If your dream school is JMU and you have a GPA of 3.75 with an SAT score of 1150, you are in the range of average GPA and test scores accepted for that school. Submitting test scores will support and strengthen your application. If your dream school is UVA and you have a GPA of 4.5 with an SAT score of 1400, your application is more competitive if you send in test scores. By prepping eight to twelve weeks before the test, you can ensure you are prepared to do your best on the SAT or ACT.

Low GPA and high PSAT score

If you have a low GPA and high PSAT score, you will likely want to do well on the SAT or ACT to show your potential for college level work. For example, if you have a 2.8 GPA and 1300 SAT score, your test score is showing a strength and readiness for college level work. In this case, it is worth putting effort into preparing and doing well on the SAT and ACT. There are places on the application where you can explain grades that may have been lower. Did you have trouble during virtual school? Did you have a difficult transition to high school but then started to improve your GPA as an upperclassmen?

High GPA and low PSAT test score

Do you work hard and excel in the classroom, but struggle with standardized tests? No matter how hard you study, you just can’t seem to improve your scores? While it’s possible to increase a first time SAT score 200+ points, it is not an easy feat. If standardized testing has caused anxiety in the past and your initial score is a few hundred points lower than the average score range of your selected schools, we recommend prepping for the test to see how you score. Depending on your first score, consider taking it once more. If your test score is still far from the average range of accepted scores, it may be wise to apply test optional. There are many test optional and test blind schools so you will have choices that don’t require test scores for admissions.

It’s helpful to have an idea of which schools you’re interested in and their test admissions policies. As a rule of thumb, if you score lower than a school’s average accepted test score range, it is best to apply test optional, if possible. But if you score within or above the average range of SAT or ACT scores for a specific school, it makes sense to include them with your application.

If you’re not sure where to apply and want to keep your options open, prep for the SAT as if you are required to submit scores to every school. If you’d prefer less test stress, even if this limits your options, then you’ll want to only consider schools that do not require test scores.