You will often hear coaches and skating moms remark, with just an edge of contempt, that a girl has decided to "just test out," meaning try to complete all of her Moves and Free skating tests by the end of senior year.
There's a funny disconnect in the skating world. While everyone acknowledges that an elite competitive career requires a rare confluence of talent, drive, good coaching, time, a flexible school, and money, skaters who can't or don't pursue this are viewed with pity, or, as I say, contempt.
But "testing out" is a worthy goal, the skating equivalent to four AP courses your senior year, or being a Congressional page-- not every good skater is capable of it.
Skaters get to the "testing out" decision for a variety of reasons. They've stopped competing for whatever reason (time, money, lack of success or loss of interest), but want the gold medal (see below for what this means) to validate their effort. They don't like competing, but love skating and want something external to keep them motivated. They want to be coaches, and the test credential can help that. (At some rinks, you basically don't need any credentials to teach, but many rinks and especially clubs require a minimum of an Intermediate Free skating test of their coaches.)
If you decide to test out, you have to factor in all the same measures you would for competing, because in its way, it's just as intense. You don't need a double axel, or any triples; you don't need level 4 skills, but you do need to follow a calendar, perfect difficult skills, be in really good shape, and impress several judges.
How fast can you move through and where are you starting
To get to the Senior Free Skating test, you have to pass 15 prior tests: 8 Moves (thru Senior) and 7 Free skating (thru Junior). If you're already older, say in your Junior or Senior year in high school, and at a lower level--Juvenile or Intermediate--you need to sit down with a coach, make a calendar and figure out a training plan as much as any high level competitor would. A very strong committed skater can do this in about 4 years starting at Juv or Intermediate. If you don't have 4 years, the hill's a little steeper, but not unclimbable. Know yourself, and assess yourself honestly.
All the factors that are there for competitive skaters are also there for these skaters--time, commitment, a lot of hours of practice, cost. You won't need to skate 20 hours a week, like a serious competitor would, but you will need to skate nearly every day, for a couple of hours, and you will need off-ice, especially at the higher levels, where the aerobic demands are considerable.
Keeping the coach on track
Some coaches consider themselves "competitive" coaches, whether or not they have the track record to back this up. As far as I'm concerned, if you're not getting a couple of girls past Regionals every year, and have never had a National skater, you're not a competitive coach; you're a coach who is feeding your parents a line of hooey. (Boys don't count; it's comparatively easy to get a boy to Sectionals, and even to Nationals.) Competitive coaches deliver medals that count. Otherwise you're a recreational coach. Now, there is nothing wrong with that, unless you're keeping your kids from testing, or suddenly pushing them through when they're high school seniors "so they have something to show for it."
If you're 16, in Intermediate, and aren't working on your second triple jump, take a step back and think about whether pursuing the competitive career makes any sense at all. Ask your coach why he thinks continuing to compete at Intermediate or Novice in your Junior or Senior year of high school is the best thing you can be doing with your skating.
To compete or not to compete
Even if you're not trying to get to Nationals, you should be skating in one or two competitions a year. There is absolutely nothing like a competition to bring out the best in a skater. It's a really good idea to compete just before a test, in a non-qualifying competition where they allow you to compete up a level, so that you can skate your test program in front of judges. Find one that has a judges critique for the skater and coach so that you can get a really honest, outside assessment of where you need work.
You have to remember that your goal in competing is not to win, but to polish the program, and to learn to overcome nerves. Especially now with the IJS, that protocols sheet can be brutal; when you're competing a senior program with only doubles, you're going to be at the bottom of the points, but remember, that's not the point. If you get a little starry eyed and start thinking "maybe", coming in last can really sting, even when you know you don't care.
Don't let the test date define your readiness
Even when you're pushing that college deadline, the thing about testing is that there are endless second chances. So don't think "I must take xx test by xx deadline." There's another test in a month. Don't take the test before you're ready, even if the calendar is making you nervous, because the judges will just stop you cold anyway, by failing you, and possibly yelling at your coach for putting out a test that wasn't ready to pass.
A word about gold medals
Yes, you get a little gold medal when you pass your senior test, and you get to call yourself a "gold medalist." This is a little trick to look for on coaching resumes. If your coach's resume says "gold medalist in free skating" this does not mean they won first place at a competition. It means they passed their senior test. "Triple Gold Medalist" is the Everest of Figure Skating-- it means you passed 3 different senior tests, typically Moves, Free skating, and Dance or Figures. It is not, however, to be confused with competitive success. And trust me, every coach who is a failed competitor is calling himself a "USFS gold medalist." In my experience, and I've taught with some really famous skaters, the really successful competitors absolutely never talk about it, either through modesty or embarrassment ("former multiple World champion, now teaching at Rink Nowhere in Podunk, Nebraska". Think about it).