Why SAT Scores Won’t Matter For College

Earning top ACT and SAT scores are an obsession with many high school students and their parents. Along with admission essays and grades, these are the traditional focus for them when it comes to applying to college. Students may study for weeks or even take preparatory courses to get the best scores on the standardized admissions tests, and even retaking them multiple times to maximize their outcome. But later on many get a surprise when they are rejected from one or more of their top picks, and they are left wondering why. Being admitted to well known colleges is not simply a matter of earning a good score on an admissions test, there’s much more to it, and students are often surprised to learn how colleges think about the SAT and ACT when considering students for admissions. Always keep in mind that what the high school system tells you about college can be far different from what colleges themselves say, so it’s always better consider information from the higher education world.

How Admissions Tests Fall Short

The SAT and ACT were originally designed to predict who would ultimately graduate from college. These tests were supposed to quantify “student aptitude,” and identify who would ultimately be successful in the higher education arena. However, several decades of data on these tests have shown that they are not a good predictor of college graduation or ultimate success at all, and only moderately predict early first-year performance. Colleges are fully aware of this fact, and have softened their stance for not only scores but requiring such testing at all. In fact, there are now more than 700 test-optional schools in the US and this number keeps growing every year. Also, there are professional groups who want to see such tests not used for admission decisions, since they tend to favor students with financial advantages. Standardized testing is a simply a test – a contrived scenario – so they do not measure other critical factors like study skills, organization, motivation, and who will essentially put in all the hard work needed for the daily grind that students face. Reputable colleges now see standardized testing scores as only one part that they consider when making admission decisions, and these one-shot tests are never considered more strongly than classroom performance metrics like grades.

There Are Better Predictors Of College Performance

College admissions committees know that there are better predictors of who might be successful in college, ones that are much more realistic than scores from a contrived testing scenario. How a student does in their classes, specific grades that they earn, are more predictive of how students will fare later in college. Classroom grades show many things standardized testing does not, such a student’s levels of effort, dedication to the work, the ability to learn quickly, and their adaptability across different subjects. Doing well in the artificial environment a standardized test does not show any of this, which is why standardized testing predictors break down quickly in college. I’ve worked with many students who got in to a school simply because they were a “good tester,” only to later see their college grades drop to where they were put on probation or even suspended. There is no way to avoid the fact that college is a lot work, so natural intelligence will only go so far. Every day I see hard working students with average SAT scores completely outscore their good tester counterparts in college grades. These good marks reflect their hard work far better than standardized tests, and colleges know this.

A Holistic Approach Considers Many Things

Many well-regarded colleges that students try to get in to each year emphasize that they take a holistic admissions view of an applicant’s information. This is especially true of smaller schools, where they will read essays, look at extracurricular activities, and consider carefully all the aspects of a student’s application. SAT or ACT scores are only be one element of this overall evaluation, and very often average scores on these tests are meaningless if a student did well in their courses or otherwise demonstrated their hard work. Very often such colleges are looking for a well rounded student who, in their words, would be a “good addition” to their student body. This doesn’t mean that students can earn bad grades, it means that these colleges want someone who is more than just focused on traditional definitions of success. Many medical programs have said they are tired of receiving applications from uni-dimensional high achievers focused only on their studies, since later they realize the student never acquired the interpersonal skills to even talk with a patient. This illustrates that it takes more than just good grades and high scores on admissions tests to be successful in college. It’s hard to thrive at a school if a student has no social skills, they wind up isolated and have nothing but the work, which is a fast way to burn out.

When SAT Or ACT Scores Might Matter

There are two situations when SAT or ACT scores can definitely count. The first is if a student is applying to an ultra-high competition program and college. For example, if you want to study biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins, you’d better be at the top of your game in all things since such a program will not be easy to get through. But high test scores alone will not get you in-  grades, extracurricular activities and other things will count just as much, the scores will just bolster your case for admission. Second, quantitative metrics like test scores and GPA will matter at large colleges where they use a “cut off” approach for admissions. I’ve had admission staff at large colleges confide in me with the truth: They are usually too busy to read essays or teacher recommendations, they simply pick a line on a score chart, and everyone above the line gets in. This is in contrast to the holistic approach where everything is considered carefully.  No matter what the large school’s public stance on it may say, the reality is that they just receive too many applications to go through each one.

In Summary

Standardized test scores alone are not enough to get a student in to a college, they are only a single piece of an overall admission application that colleges will consider. Classroom grades are more predictive of later college success, this is because they reflect a student’s motivation, persistence, study skills, and organizational abilities that a contrived testing situation cannot show. Well-regarded and smaller colleges tend to take a holistic approach to considering a student’s application, and see standardized scores as only one piece of the overall picture. With less weight being given to SAT and ACT scores in recent years, and with now more than 700 test-optional schools, getting a high score on these tests may not matter because grades will be more strongly considered. Always keep in mind that you must do well in your classes, and expecting to slack with those then pull a good score on the SAT may not get you in to the colleges you hoped for.

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