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Applying to Test-Optional, Reach Schools: 5 Tips to Stand Out

If you plan on applying to your dream school sans ACT/SAT scores, your application must be competitive. Use these five tips to enhance your acceptance odds.

Shawna Newman

February 26, 2021

Applying to Test-Optional, Reach Schools: 5 Tips to Stand Out
Keep your college application strong! Ensure it stands out.
As many colleges and universities in the U.S. have updated their testing policies and requirements as a result of COVID-19, high school juniors have an advantage as they begin to plan their college application process; especially if your dream college (AKA: dream schools/reach school) is now test-optional. For some high school students, the term “reach school” means Ivy League schools such as Yale University, Dartmouth College or the University of Pennsylvania. To others, reach schools may be a larger university outside of their home state. Students are eager to apply to more selective schools and it shows. With the shift to test-optional admissions in 2020 –21, application rates to well-known colleges have skyrocketed. The Washington Post reports that “Freshman applications to the University of California at Berkeley crossed into six figures for the first time, totaling more than 112,000, up 28 percent.” Similarly, the University of Virginia saw a 15 percent application increase, and Harvard was up 42 percent.
The pandemic has shifted the admissions requirements, with more colleges likely to follow to stay competitive and fill their seats. According to, “55 percent of all bachelor-degree granting schools in the U.S. have already announced that they will not require ACT or SAT standardized exam scores for at least one more admission cycle.” If you are a junior and plan on applying to a test-optional reach school, there are 5 ways to have a strong, competitive application and boost your acceptance rate, should you choose not to submit test scores:
  1. Keep a high Grade Point Average.

  2. While your reach school may be test-optional, that doesn't mean other students are not submitting their ACT or SAT scores. You must be able to show the admissions team you have what it takes to be a great student. Shemmassian Academic Consulting adds, many selective admissions teams stress that grades, rather than test scores, are the best indicators of college success.
    Because of the non-testing requirement, a high GPA will be a huge role in your final admission status.
  3. Stay involved in extracurricular activities.

  4. Admissions teams are looking to fill their college with upstanding, caring and involved citizens. Students that show the ability to stay involved in school activities or community organizations while maintaining academics often stand out.
  5. Create an outstanding essay.

  6. The essay part of your application holds more weight than it has before. You’ll need to showcase your ability to accurately portray a memorable message. This is also a chance for you to share your resilience if COVID has impacted you personally.
    An effective essay is a way for you to take your application one step further to highlight your unique qualities.
  7. Have strong recommendation letters.

  8. Build relationships with mentors by communicating your goals and plans with them. Ask for their input and advice and listen. They’ll take notice of your efforts and vigor; this is the inspiration and application they’ll need to write super recommendation letter on your behalf. If you’re active in your community or volunteer, having a high-profile refence such as a state representative, mayor and even business owner, is another great way to build connections and solidify a one-of-a-kind letter of recommendation.
  9. Ensure your social media accounts reflect your best self.

  10. Most admissions officers are looking at social media accounts, like TikTok and Instagram, as part of their student evaluation or admissions process. According to Inside Higher Ed, a 2020 Kaplan survey reflected that 65 percent of admissions officers “see no issue with social media being a part of the admissions equation.”
If you're a current high school senior that's not happy with your test scores, see if your reach schools have late application deadlines or an open, rolling admissions timeline. For the Class of 2022, adjusted standardized test score requirements have created more college admissions possibilities; there has not been a better time to consider applying to reach colleges in our new, test-optional world—especially for students that are not great test takers. If you’re having a hard time deciding whether or not to take standardized tests, reach out to your high school counselor for advice.

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