Skip to content

ACT Newsroom & Blog

Hide All News & Blogs View All News & Blogs

Why Do Students Choose to Take the ACT?

Dr. Edgar Sanchez, lead research scientist
By: Edgar Sanchez, lead research scientist

Given the growing popularity of test-optional college admissions policies, it is important to ask: Where does the ACT test fit into student plans when preparing for postsecondary education? To help answer this question, my research team designed a survey asking students why they chose to take the ACT when applying to colleges that didn’t require a standardized test score for admission.

The findings suggest that students are using test scores to strengthen their college applications, even when an institution does not require test scores for admission, revealing important opportunities for ACT to support students on their journey to postsecondary education.

We also asked these students, who took the test in June 2022 and applied to both test-optional and test-required colleges, to rank the most and least important factors they considered when deciding where to apply for college and found that test-optional policies were less important, while financial reasons were cited most often.

These students said that affordable tuition was the most important reason for applying to a test-optional college, followed by course of studies offered, location of the college, and scholarship opportunities. The institution’s test-optional policy was not often ranked by students as the most important factor. Interestingly, 44% of respondents ranked the institution’s test-optional policy as the least important factor, meaning that among students who applied to test-optional and test-required institutions, the test-optional policy was not a crucial factor when deciding where to apply.

This held true across racial and ethnic groups when observing how students ranked an institution’s test-optional policy relative to other characteristics. Even among traditionally underrepresented populations who are often meant to benefit the most from test-optional policies, 34% of Black students and 40% of Hispanic students ranked these policies as the least important factor when selecting an institution.

On the other hand, financial considerations appear to be a clear imperative for students: Four of the top five factors listed as most important when deciding where to apply to college were financial. When it comes to curriculum, while 18% of students considered the course of studies offered at an institution to be the most important factor, only 3% considered curricular rigor to be the most important factor.

In a recent research brief, we highlighted the findings of one survey item where we asked: “Given your choice to apply to a test-optional institution, what factors contributed to your decision to take the ACT?” The responses revealed seven themes: students were meeting school or state requirements, seeking an academic benefit or edge, applying to test-required institutions, testing their skills by comparing their scores to the school’s average ACT score, helping their admissions application stand out relative to other applicants, taking the test “just in case” they needed it, and other reasons, such as parental pressure to test.

So, why would students take the ACT when applying to a test-optional college? Most said they wanted to see their scores and determine if it was worth submitting them for admissions consideration. Others cited various testing requirements: for other institutions that did require test scores, to graduate high school, or for a scholarship application. Other students used the ACT to help inform their academic achievement by comparing their scores to an institution’s average score, to help them get into competitive institutions, or to supplement their low high school GPA.

These findings tell us that even in a test-optional environment, taking the ACT is still an important part of students’ postsecondary plans. In fact, the test is being used strategically by students to increase their likelihood of college admission. Among students who applied to both test-optional and test-required institutions, there are far more important factors being considered than test-optional policies.

Summer 2022 ACT intern Eveline De Medeiros Miranda contributed to this report.