Grades Matter Even More When Applying Test Optional

Test-optional applications seem like a great idea. But to be a competitive applicant, your student’s grades need to shine. If they are struggling, don’t wait to get help.

Test-optional college admission was trending even before the pandemic disrupted in-person standardized testing and made it difficult for all students to take the SAT and ACT. Since then, fewer students are taking these tests, and a full 80% of bachelor’s degree-granting schools are test optional today, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. 

Your child may even be considering applying to colleges based on their test-optional admission practices. No matter what high school grade your child is in — or even if they are in middle school — they have important decisions to make for future college admissions, including paying close attention to their GPA, says Carla Pedersen, Regional Director at Academic Approach, a Chicago-based tutoring and test-prep company. 


Excellent grades should be the number one priority for every college-bound student. No matter what choice your student makes when applying to colleges — standardized tests or not — you can help them achieve their goals. Start by learning more about what test optional means.

“When we talk about test optional, many people think first about test-blind admission. That’s where a university doesn’t need the scores and is not looking at them at all. Test scores are not part of the process,” explains Pedersen. 

Test optional, on the other hand, gives every applicant a choice whether or not to include their test scores with their application. “Some apply with scores, and some apply without, depending on what makes them a more competitive candidate,” she says.

Some colleges adopted test-optional policies temporarily, then reverted back to requiring test scores from applicants, says Andrew Ferguson, Director of Client Services at Academic Approach. “MIT opted back in, and Georgetown, too. They’ve always been believers in standardized exams because they believe test scores are the best indicators of how capable a student is in certain areas,” Ferguson says. 

With the sheer quantity of individual school districts across the country — even across the Midwest — universities have long relied on SAT or ACT scores when they are unable to determine the weight of a student’s GPA. 

From a university’s perspective, SAT and ACT scores have always provided a way for admissions departments to know the rigor of a high school’s curriculum and the value of a student’s grades. 

“Test scores provide the opportunity for admissions to know how grades from a school district in Montana compare to grades from a school district in South Carolina,” Ferguson says. “Without these tests, how do universities make the decision to accept a student?”

Have a test score regardless

All Illinois public school students take the SAT as a graduation requirement, but students who attend independent schools must take the SAT or the ACT on their own if their school doesn’t provide access. Whether a student uses a score in their college application or not, having that test score is a good idea.

“Explore the option of taking the tests. Don’t ignore it. Use it as part of your planning process to see if either test will be an asset in your application,” Pedersen says. 

Even before your student takes the SAT or ACT, establish a solid starting point by taking a complimentary diagnostic test at Academic Approach. 

“If your student is thinking about test optional or is on the fence, taking a diagnostic test first — and knowing where they stand — is unbelievably important. It allows them to know how much work may be required to earn a particular score and having a baseline is huge,” Ferguson says. 

Your child’s test score could be a valuable tool for their application, says Pedersen. “Pursue it because if it’s going to be a strong factor, great. But if not, it’s good to know that as well. Don’t simply label yourself as a bad test taker,” she says. 

Instead, work with Academic Approach to get that initial information.

Grades matter, test optional or not

Because application practices have changed so dramatically within the space of just a few years — and the test optional choice means students have fewer ways to prove themselves to their colleges of choice — grades remain the single most important factor in college admissions. 

“In my mind, a student’s grades have to be without question,” says Ferguson. “There should be no moments of doubt when applying to schools.”

Parents can help their student achieve the best possible grades throughout their high school career by focusing on excellent grades early on — and seeking help at the first sign of struggle. 

“Many parents take the approach of seeing how first semester goes and then if their child needs help, they reach out. That’s not realistic. Start earlier, especially if your child struggles in certain subjects,” Ferguson says. 

There are a host of warning signs that your child is struggling, Pedersen says. “They may voice their struggles, or their grades may slip,” she says. “They may either seem stressed or even apathetic because they are in avoidance mode.” 

Tutoring will help your child move more comfortably through school and will help them maintain strong grades from day one. “We used to say that colleges want to see progression, but now grades have become a full package of four years of strength, so it’s even more important for students to get help early on,” Ferguson adds.

Another way your child can improve their GPA is to reach out to their teacher and have an honest conversation about where they are academically. Then, by working one-on-one with an academic tutor, your student can build a framework and a plan for moving forward. 

 “In tutoring, sometimes the student’s stress level is so high, and we provide a little bit of relief,” Ferguson says. “Just the knowledge that they are not doing it alone is really helpful.”

 Help your child achieve success with Academic Approach. Learn more at

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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