How colleges use SAT and ACT results

Navigating test-optional policies at colleges and universities can be challenging. But for college applicants who do opt to submit their ACT or SAT scores, there is a second layer of potential confusion: how those scores are then used by institutions.

College scoring policies can be broken down into two categories: score choice and superscoring. Score choice, which is both a general term and a specific College Board option for the SAT, is when a student may freely decide which ACT or SAT scores to send and not send to a college. Superscoring is when a college accepts a student’s highest scores from each section across all sittings for an exam.

These two categories can be broken down even further into more specific policies:

— The submission of all exam scores is required.

— The submission of all exam scores is recommended.

— Students may decide which scores to send.

— Many colleges automatically superscore.

The Submission of All Exam Scores Is Required

In a normal college admissions year — one not affected by the novel coronavirus — a number of colleges across the U.S. require applicants to submit the scores from all the ACT or SAT exams they have taken. These include Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania and Yale University in Connecticut — both have gone test-optional for first-year fall 2021 applicants due to the coronavirus pandemic — and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

[Read: How the Coronavirus Is Pushing Colleges to Go Test-Optional.]

When you are asked to submit all of your ACT or SAT scores, it is because the school wishes to review both your high and low scores. One possible reason is that colleges are interested in seeing whether students improve their test performance over time. Score choice may also favor students who can afford test prep or multiple exam sittings over those who cannot.

One or two low scores on your application is not necessarily grounds for rejection, since standardized test scores comprise just one of multiple factors in the admissions decision. For certain highly selective schools, however, scores that fluctuate dramatically or remain low consistently may be a red flag.

Students who apply to colleges with a no-score-choice policy should be aware of it ahead of time, since unforeseen low scores may harm chances of being accepted. It is also critical to note that if you withhold scores from a school that finds out later, you could be rejected or lose your acceptance. Always be honest.

The Submission of All Exam Scores Is Recommended

If a college or university recommends but does not require the submission of all test scores, applicants are still encouraged to do so. If one of your ACT or SAT scores is significantly lower than the rest, carefully consider omitting that score from your application only after consulting with individuals like your guidance counselor.

[Read: Students Who Benefit From Test-Optional, Test-Flexible Admissions.]

Remember: Your ACT or SAT scores may appear on documents other than your actual application, such as your transcript. It is always in your best interest to present a consistent record of your achievement.

Students May Decide Which Scores to Send

When students can choose which ACT or SAT scores to send, it is assumed that they will submit only their best scores. Much like superscoring, the freedom of score choice is highly beneficial to students who have scored inconsistently. Columbia University in New York City is one well-known school that allows score choice, although like many other schools it has gone test-optional for first-year fall 2021 applicants due to COVID-19.

Students should thoroughly research the scoring policies for all their schools of interest. Even if an institution lets you decide which scores to send, sending all your scores may be advantageous. This is because the increasing volume of applications received each year at some colleges has led some to resort to a more convenient and automated method called superscoring.

Many Colleges Automatically Superscore

Fortunately for high school students, an increasing number of colleges are now superscoring both the ACT and the SAT. A college that superscores considers only the applicant’s highest section scores, therefore allowing the student to earn the highest possible composite score.

Many prestigious colleges and universities, such as Boston College and Stanford University in California, use superscoring. Both the ACT and SAT providers support the superscoring option. Boston College and Stanford also are among schools that are test-optional for first-year fall 2021 applicants.

[Read: ACT vs. SAT: How to Decide Which Test to Take.]

Students should rest assured that if their prospective colleges practice superscoring, test-takers need do nothing. Superscoring is done automatically by college admissions officials once test scores are available.

The Submission of Test Scores Is Optional

In response to the disarray caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many more schools are adopting a test-optional policy for this year’s admissions cycle. In such instances, students will not be disadvantaged if they opt out of submitting their ACT or SAT scores or if they have been unable to take either exam due to the pandemic.

Some colleges are extending a test-optional policy for a limited time. Still other schools, like Bowdoin College in Maine, were test-optional before the pandemic and will remain so during and after.

Before taking action with your ACT and SAT scores, be sure to look into the test submission policy of each college where you might apply.

More from U.S. News

How to Prep for SAT, ACT Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak

How Parents Can Help Students Prep for ACT, SAT

How the Coronavirus Affects College Admissions

How Colleges Use SAT, ACT Results originally appeared on

Update 09/14/20: This article has been updated with new information.

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