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What Is a Test-Optional College? – An Adult Student’s Guide to the SAT/ACT

Nathan Wilgeroth / Abound: Finish College »

Adults hoping to earn their degree don’t always have a lot of straightforward information when it comes to applying to college. Understandably, most of the advice out there is for students in high school. We’ve talked at length about how the actual college experience differs between traditional and non-traditional students, but the application process has some key differences, too. 

We’re all familiar with the standardized college entrance exams, the SAT and ACT, which have been held up as vital prerequisites for admissions for decades. Because these are such cornerstones in the admissions process, it’s no wonder why many returning adult students might think they have to consider revisiting these tests they haven’t had to think about for over ten years, if at all. Fortunately, however, digging up old test scores or taking the SAT/ACT are rarely things that 25+-year-olds have to worry about.

Test-Optional Admissions

It is incredibly common for colleges to employ a test-optional policy for any student who graduated from high school more than five years prior to applying. And, for both traditional and non-traditional students, “test-optional” means exactly what it sounds like: applicants can choose to send in their test scores only if they feel that it will supplement and add value to their application. Otherwise, there are no penalties for not submitting scores, and the admissions decision is made based off of the rest of the application.

Over the last few years, more and more schools have incorporated test-optional policies in their undergraduate admissions processes, citing that these tests are not always accurate reflections of a student’s knowledge. Many, in fact, now agree that the SAT and ACT can be culturally, racially, and socioeconomically biased; those with less access to test-prep resources and the ability to study consistently underperform in relation to their wealthier, white peers. Every other aspect of the college application—transcripts, extracurricular involvement, work experience, etc.—often represents a student more reliably than the results of a single day of testing.

While test-optional policies had already been growing in popularity, the COVID-19 pandemic has really sped up this change. The hardship of 2020 has impacted not only the ability for people to study for or concentrate on these entrance exams, but it has also affected the ability for multiple people to gather under the same roof on testing day.

All of these changes for traditional undergraduate admissions have only helped assure non-traditional adult students that they do not have to submit their scores. But it’s important to note that every school has its own policies, and you should always check with each school you’re considering to see whether they do or do not require SAT/ACT scores.

Opting In

If you do choose or, in rare cases, are required to send in your test scores, there are a few important things to keep in mind. Have you already taken the SAT/ACT? Was it all the way back when you were 17 years old? You will still be able to access your results—with a few caveats. 

College Board and ACT, Inc. will mark scores that are five or more years old with a message stating that “may be less valid predictors of college academic performance than more recent scores.” There are also additional fees for requesting older scores that have been archived. You can also take the SAT/ACT again, studying for, signing up for, and taking them in the same way you would as a high school student. Make sure only to take this time if you absolutely have to! The rest of your application, as well as your lived experience, are far more important when applying as a non-traditional student.

Opting Out

So what else is required in your application, if not the entrance exams? Apart from the standard housekeeping and registration forms, you have many opportunities to show colleges how great of a student you will be. If you attended college in the past but didn’t finish, you’ll want to send in your undergraduate transcript. These grades will not only help admissions officers make their decision to admit you, but you may also be able to earn transfer credit to go toward your degree. 

It is also important to have plenty of information about what you have done since high school. Any work, service, or leadership positions you have had will show your dedication and work ethic. You can even earn credit for non-academic experiences as well! Whatever professional licensure or projects you have completed will likely weigh more heavily than the scores from your entrance exams.

It is extremely rare for colleges and universities to require SAT/ACT scores from non-traditional applicants, especially in light of the pandemic. What’s always important to remember is to study each of your prospective schools’ application requirements thoroughly; while the chances of a school asking for your scores are slim, you can never be too careful!


As you look for and apply to colleges as a non-traditional adult learner, remember that Abound: Finish College is your go-to resource for advice and information about schools that we can confirm are Accessible, Affordable, Accelerated, and Advanced. Take a look at the schools we trust and find the program that works for you.

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