Inside Admissions Committee: ACT, SAT, Both or Neither?
by Steve Ahn, copyright 2015

As an admissions application reviewer and college consultant, one of my students I work with came to me after agonizing over which standardized test to take if at all. She had asked several college representatives and her high school counselor if she should take the ACT, SAT, or both. She told me she got some ambiguous sometimes snarky rhetoric and one quip to the effect of, “Take the one you’re best at.”

So unfunny, we adults can be, usually at the worst moments.

Folks, I consider this a dead serious question that from the admissions committee perspective is clear cut. Unfortunately, college reps, counselors, and other officials usually won’t give a definitive straight answer because they shouldn’t. It would be like telling students to take one particular course over another or to pursue one activity over another. Oh, the lawsuits that could arise. Really. So here’s my disclaimer too, that this article is for fun-fiction and discussion purposes only.

Now go take both.

I’m not writing about the differences between the two tests. You can answer that yourself with three minutes and a mouse. And regardless of whether you think you’ll score better on one test over another, you won’t have a clue until you take several practice tests. Even then, you’ll arrive at the same final branch in the decision tree after you consider the options along with possible outcomes and how the scores are used especially from the admissions perspective at Ivy’s and similarly competitive colleges.

Still reading, hoping that you won’t have to take both? Well, go through the decision tree.

What if you take one and not the other?
If you score poorly, you’ll have to retake it. If you score poorly again, then you’ll have to continue to retake it – studying harder before each attempt. If you score well finally or at any time, then you should take the other because there is a strong likelihood that you’ll also score well. There is also a likelihood that you’ll have to take the other test anyway as required by many Ivy’s and competitive colleges. By the way, when a college “recommends” you take it, read that as “you must take it” for reasons you’ll see below. If you continue to score poorly in your re-takes, you’ll have to take the other in an attempt to eclipse the poor score, difficult as it may be to do so. This worse case scenario still isn’t worse than having no scores, which again, I’ll describe later.

To avoid this worse case scenario, if your practice tests indicate you’ll score extremely poorly in either, then you may wish to defer taking the test(s). Chances are, however, you’ll need to take one or both eventually. Despite the growing number of test-optional colleges, most of the more competitive colleges have not and are not expected to make the switch. Even if they do, doing so would be for prima facie P.C. reasons and would not reflect a true change in what goes on behind admissions committee doors. The reasoning is simple. Standardized testing for better or worse is standardized. It is one of the few uniform tools that can be used to make a fairer albeit imperfect comparison between students from different schools and learning environments (including homeschooled) across the country and around the world. This is why Advanced Placement exams are also critical.

What if you take both? If you score well on both, then you’re done. Pat yourself on the back for working hard throughout all your school years and/or developing into a good test taker – that’s right, “a good test taker” not necessarily “a good student”. We acknowledge that. If you score well on only one, then you are in the same situation as above – taking one and scoring poorly. You’ll have to retake the one you scored poorly on until you can get that score up. If you score poorly on both, then you have to re-take both. This is where I find the true character of a lot of students (and parents) are revealed, because there is no easy way to make a score go up other than through hard work. (I’m reminded of when I tried to get in shape by hiring personal trainers, joining different gyms, and buying fancy exercise equipment.) Nothing can replace hard work. No amount of expensive test prep programs, tutors, or study resources can replace hard work. You may even have a learning disability, but nothing can relieve you of the need to score competitively – not even the “excuse essay”. That’s the optional essay or the one on “how he believes he is exceptionally intelligent and qualified, how he prefers to take a philosophical high-road and rise above the evils of standardized testing, and how standardized tests are culturally biased and statistically proven to be poor indicators of scholastic aptitude and achievement.” (Yes, that’s one of the top 10 essay topics to avoid – but essays are a different topic not for this article.) So if you are the student who has always worked hard, then you need to do more of the same. If you are the student who goofed off all your school years while you were supposed to be developing your aptitude and acumen, then now is the time to pay the ferryman. Either way, be the ambitious diligent studious achiever you claim to be in the rest of your application.

What if you take neither?
In this case, colleges will generally assume that you have little or no intellectual confidence, aptitude, and/or achievement, and they will be forced to rely mostly on your grades. “But I have a great GPA!” One of the problems with that is that grades from different schools are not easily comparable. The valedictorian in one school might not even be able to make honor roll in another school. There is no reason nor compulsion that admissions has to grant you the benefit of presumption here. Suppose there are other national test data like AP scores, and they are all 5’s. Still only limited credibility is given to the grades, which remember are not very comparable, and admissions will still think and in this case even more so, “Why then didn’t this student grab the easy high score in the SAT or ACT if they are such a strong student?” From the admissions committee point of view, a student with an A+ in AP biology but a 3 on the exam is in a negative light compared to the student at another school who may have made a C- in AP biology but scored a 5. (That C- is usually ignored by the way.) That’s how much standardized data trumps localized indigenous data. This is why Harvard rejects about half of the valedictorians that apply – not so surprising anymore, huh? What about other standardized performance metrics like national level academic competitions – often in math, science, and writing? Yes – they are helpful, but the same default question applies, “Why then didn’t this student grab the easy high score in the SAT or ACT if they are such a strong student?”

Simply put, the reasons to take the tests reflect academic strength and confidence. The reasons to not take the tests reflect only the opposite. There is no logical positive reason to not take the tests. Like it or not, that’s the way admissions views it.

Sadly, many applicants don’t realize that not taking the SAT or ACT is a favor to admissions evaluators, who are tirelessly laboring to whittle down giant piles of applications. The quick “no” is a godsend and makes the job easier. Even for test-optional colleges, this applies. Consider boiling down the option to take the SAT or ACT to, “So, do you want another way to distinguish your academic acumen and achievement?” You’re answering “No” by not taking either test. What will be interesting to see (if those test-optional colleges dare to show us) is the data on students who opted to take neither the SAT nor the ACT but were still admitted. That’s right, there is no reliable data – at least not from large or competitive test-optional colleges. Hmm.

How about yet another perspective?

Peek inside an admissions evaluator’s brain for a second. Suppose there’s an omniscient wunderkind who knows he’ll achieve perfect scores on the SAT and ACT. Why would he choose to not take them? Because the tests are expensive, and he’s busy that weekend? Pff. Of course he’d want to show off his perfect scores rather than no scores. Now suppose there’s a kid on the opposite end of the spectrum who can’t spell his name correctly. Why would he ever take the test? He’d do everything possible to hide in a corner – all the while writing the “excuse essay”.

If I still haven’t convinced you to take both tests, then convince yourself.

You’re a fly on the Ivy-covered wall in an admissions committee room. Five candidates are being considered and the sub-committee is trying to narrow down the choices. All five are near the top of their classes. Each has comparable personal qualities – having been president of this and founder of that, with four years of varsity athletics, four years as captain of so and so. Each has pushed themselves to the limits of their available curriculae with accelerated programs, dual enrollment, and AP courses (for which all the exams were 5’s.) Each interviewed with a rating of 5 out of 5 or “SA” (strong admit”) – the general rating scheme for many Ivy’s and other competitive schools by the way. The essays are equally compelling. All five candidates are even in the same demographic category – yes, welcome to the real world. In other words, all the factors even the standardized test scores are similar – except for one applicant, who didn’t take any of the tests. Whom would you eliminate when narrowing down the list? It’s actually a quick, simple no-brainer and a welcome one at that. Actually, what’s harder is when the one with the lowest test scores has more compelling other attributes as evidenced elsewhere in the application including the essays than candidates with higher test scores. This is why there is a distribution and standard deviation of test scores for admitted students. It’s a direct result of the holistic approach to evaluating applicants.

So stop over analyzing, rationalizing, and hoping. Realize the world that the admissions evaluator lives in is even simpler, more objective, faster moving, and more clearly bifurcated. Don’t assume you’re special amongst over 20,000 applicants per school (and that’s the low end) and that you’ll be given special consideration because you were homeschooled, or you had a family issue, or a meteorite hit your car on the way to the test center. Stop trying to game the application. Stop looking for the easy way out. Be confident and score well. And if you’re not confident, then get to work so you’ll become confident (no matter how many legitimate excuses you may have), and score well. Be everything that you claim to be in the other parts of your application.

It’s better to show your complete picture even with a test-score blemish than a picture with a glaring empty spot, especially compared to everyone else’s picture, which may not be as perfect as you think.
Steve Ahn is an admissions application reviewer and interviewer for Emory University and the University of Pennsylvania / Wharton and a college consultant. He also leads seminars on college planning, application content, essays, and interviewing. Read more about him at or contact him at or