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A solution for mediocre SAT and ACT scores

Surveys repeatedly show that one of the scariest parts of the college admission process for teenagers is taking the ACT and/or SAT.

And it's no wonder since the stakes are high. Many colleges and universities routinely use the test scores to make admission decisions and to help them determine what kind of award packages a student should receive.

But there are ways for teens to immunize themselves against test stress. They can apply to colleges and universities where taking the ACT and SAT is optional. Here are four things you should know about the trend among some schools away from the exam process.

1. More schools are making the tests an option

The number of test-optional schools continues to increase with more than two dozen joining the ranks since last spring alone. Schools that have recently adopted test-optional policies include Beloit College in Wisconsin, Bryn Mawr College (Pennsylvania), Hofstra University (New York), Temple University (Pennsylvania) and Wesleyan University (Connecticut).

Nationwide, there are now more than 850 schools that do not require all or many applicants to submit standardized test scores. It's worth noting that many of the schools that don't require test results are not selective. These include schools that have open enrollment, which means just about anybody is accepted.

2. Liberal arts colleges are big backers of test-optional practices.

Liberal arts colleges are heavily represented among the most prestigious schools that have embraced test-optional policies. U.S. News & World Report's highest-ranked test-optional liberal arts colleges include Bowdoin College (Maine), Wesleyan University (Connecticut), Bates College (Maine), Smith College (Massachusetts), Bryn Mawr (Pennsylvania), College of the Holy Cross (Massachusetts) and Pitzer College (California).

It's easier for liberal arts colleges to embrace this strategy because they tend to evaluate students more holistically. Beyond test scores and grades, they look at other factors that can include an interview, essay, demonstrated interest in the school and extracurriculars.

In contrast, the most prestigious universities still require standardized tests. Universities are loath to drop test scores as a requirement because they rely heavily or exclusively on grade point averages, test scores and sometimes class rank when evaluating applicants. Wake Forest University and Brandeis University are the highest-ranked universities that are test optional.

3. Check out this list of test-optional schools.

To help you explore test-optional schools, FairTest, an organization that opposes standardized testing, put together this list of more than 160 institutions that are ranked in the top tier of their respective U.S. News categories.

4. Schools have both honorable and cynical reasons for making tests optional.

When colleges make it optional to take the ACT and SAT they often note correctly that these standardized tests are highly correlated with income. Students whose parents make $200,000 a year, for example, score higher as a group than test takers whose parents make $150,000 annually and these students generate better scores than those whose parents make $100,000 and on down the income ladder.

Because of this test bias, lower-income students have a harder time qualifying for better schools. One goal of becoming test-optional, schools say, is to help their campuses become more diverse. Yet a study last year, questioned whether low-income and minority students are actually benefiting when schools go test-optional.

Meanwhile, schools that embrace a test-optional policy also help their bottom line by making themselves more popular. According to one study, these institutions can often see an immediate 10 percent to 20 percent bump in their number of applications that they receive. Candidates who might have previously been considered weaker applicants can now enjoy a better chance of admission. Also, when a school gets more applications it can reject more students, which makes them look more selective.