Do Standardized Test Scores Really Matter?
In the last decade, the idea that colleges no longer care that much about standardized test scores has become prevalent in the admissions discourse. Many schools themselves like to brag about how they view test scores as just one of a multitude of factors in the admissions process. Yet like a seventh-grade boy who spends two hours in front of the mirror every morning trying to perfect his Justin Bieber bangs while simultaneously proclaiming that he "doesn't care what anyone thinks," the facts about test scores quite simply belie the claim.
Despite media talk and institutional reports about the diminishing role of the SAT and ACT, recent data suggest that standardized test scores have actually become more important over the past several years—perhaps because of their influence on college rankings. The admissions process (with few exceptions like Reed College) is still beholden to and driven by the almighty rankings. In fact, for their 2014 rankings, U.S. News actually upped the importance placed on test scores in their methodology. Not surprisingly, the "top" schools remain the ones whose freshman classes have the highest SAT scores. Today, 56 percent of colleges state that test scores are of "considerable importance" in their admissions decisions, placing it third behind grades and a rigorous curriculum. Twenty years ago only 43 percent of schools said the same.
As a general rule, larger schools rely more on test scores than do smaller liberal arts colleges merely as a tool to pare down a massive applicant pool. In a pragmatic sense, it would be difficult for admissions officers at a school like UCLA to wade through 60,000-plus applications, sans SAT/ACT data, without feeling like a harried cashier in a Weimer Republic farmer's market ("I'll get you your cabbage as soon as I finish counting your 200 billion marks!").
On the other side, the last decade has indeed seen a rise in "test-optional" schools. Wake Forest, George Mason, Ursinus, American, Bates, Bowdoin, Franklin & Marshall, Union, and Connecticut College are just a sampling of the highly-selective schools that have adopted a "test optional" policy. While this choice may open doors for the test-averse, don't mistake the intent of this policy as wholeheartedly charitable or representative of a sweeping philosophical shift. Test-optional schools generally only receive SAT/ACT results from applicants who excelled on the test, and as a consequence, can often report artificially high average scores to U.S. News. Thus, these institutions can accept lower-scoring applicants with full impunity.
College Transitions Bottom Line: Test scores are necessary but not sufficient for admission at the vast majority of highly selective schools. At smaller institutions, a student with an excellent overall profile but weaker test scores may receive a closer look, but unless that school is test-optional, or that applicant can throw a 70-yard tight spiral, the scores still stir the drink.
College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Please visit our website—www.collegetransitions.com—to learn more.