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Articles / Applying to College / Are Subject Tests and ACT Writing "Required"?

Sept. 19, 2017

Are Subject Tests and ACT Writing "Required"?

Question: Several of my son's reach schools say ACT Writing and SAT Subject tests are optional and not required.

However, these are competitive schools with average act @32 and gpa @4.2. At schools like this, is there an unwritten expectation that they should be provided? Is everyone else providing and it would be glaring omission if my son didn't provide? Especially for the ACT writing?


The ACT Writing option has caused a fair amount of ballyhoo since its introduction about a dozen years ago. The upshot is that many of the colleges that used to require it don't require it anymore. While “The Dean" happens to believe that there is something to be said for allowing admission committees to eyeball an essay that was definitely untouched by any parent, English teacher, older sibling, college counselor, SAT tutor, or lacrosse coach, the college folks can tend to find the ACT Writing scores inconsistent and unhelpful. Thus your son will definitely not be penalized if he decides against taking this test, even if he is aiming for the most competitive colleges that don't expect it. And should he be denied by a top-choice college while a seemingly less qualified classmate is admitted, and that classmate did take the ACT Writing test while your son did not, I will still bet all my mortgage money that this discrepancy had no impact whatsoever on the admission verdicts.

But Subject Tests can be a different story. Although there are certainly plenty of candidates who don't submit Subject Test results and yet are welcomed to hyper-selective colleges, sending in scores—if they're top-notch—can provide at least a little bit of extra fire-power and help serve as a “tie-breaker" among similar students. This is especially true if the applicant has touted a talent in academic areas not covered by the SAT or ACT (French, physics, etc.) In such cases, high Subject Test scores can corroborate the claim. If your son is applying to the most sought-after colleges, such as the Ivies, then many of his “competitor applicants" will send stellar Subject Test scores, mandatory or not. However, if your son already has strong AP exam results in the same field(s), then there isn't any need to sit for the Subject Tests if his target colleges don't demand them.

Bottom line: There's no reason to take the ACT with Writing if no target colleges want it, but Subject Test scores (required or not) might play a role (smallish—not starring) in admission verdicts.

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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