With the recent trend of more colleges going test optional, you may think that test scores have become less important in college admissions, but this isn’t exactly the case. The reality is there are many schools and many categories of students for whom test scores remain to be very important. So let’s break it down.
Why Test Scores are Still Important
Currently, there are over 850 colleges and universities in the United States that are test-optional, or “test-flexible” in some capacity, but these make up less than ⅓ of the 4-year colleges and universities in the country. SAT and ACT scores are considered by many institutions to be the most effective data points we have right now to compare students from different high schools and different parts of the country. These tests are not perfect, by any means, and they do not accurately assess many of the intelligences and skills a student might bring to a school, but, for better or worse, they are what colleges have right now to use as an equalizing factor. And so they will remain an important component in admissions at many schools, particularly large institutions. Even many schools that appear to be test-optional are not truly test-optional for all students. They may require other testing in lieu of the traditional SAT or ACT, such as AP or IB scores, or they may require scores from student athletes and students seeking scholarships even if they aren’t required in general admissions.
Test Scores are More Important at Some Schools than Others
Every higher ed institution ranks the factors it considers in admissions from “very important”, to “important”, to “considered”, to “not considered”, and you can find this information online in college profiles. For example, Yale lists test scores as “very important,” the University of Michigan lists them as “important,” and Harvard lists them as “considered.” But because this information is self-reported, you have to take it with a grain of salt (Harvard boasts some of the highest test scores in the country, after all). Test scores are also calculated into U.S. News and World Report rankings, so this puts additional pressure on schools seeking higher rankings to increase the average SAT score of their admitted students.
Still…Test Scores are Just One Factor in Admissions
Knowing how important test scores are to certain institutions can give you valuable insight into the level of scrutiny that your SAT or ACT score report might face, but it is also important to keep in mind that scores are only one factor in admissions. Most institutions consider your high school transcript and GPA to be the most important component in admissions and also consider other elements such as essays, teacher and peer recommendations, extracurricular activities, and personal obstacles. This is a good thing for students who feel that their test scores do not best represent them, but it also means that students should realize that test scores might be even more competitive at their dream schools than they realize. Say a school deems test scores a “considered” factor in admissions and releases a middle-50 percentile SAT score range of 1200 – 1450 (I’m using new SAT scores out of 1600, since that is what we will be working with from now on). You may think your 1250 makes you competitive at this school, and it might, depending on the rest of your profile. But remember that this score range is likely pulled down by some students who have been admitted for special reasons. You should always target scores in the upper half of this range, then, to consider yourself to be truly competitive. If you’re wondering how to improve your ACT score or your SAT score to move up in this range, one of the best ways to do so is to practice with all of the official tests you can get your hands on (and do so under a time limit). You can find previously given SATs and ACTs on the College Board and ACT websites as well as in the official books published by these organizations.
The moral of the story is that good test scores can only help you in college admissions. Test optional schools are a great choice for students for whom the SAT or ACT is not a good fit, but, with the state of college admissions today, good scores still stand to open up a lot more doors.
About Kristin Fracchia
As Magoosh’s resident ACT Expert, Kristin creates awesomely fun ACT lessons and practice materials for students. With a PhD from UC Irvine and degrees in Education and English, she’s been working in education since 2004 and has helped students prepare for standardized tests, as well as college and graduate school admissions, since 2007. She enjoys the agonizing bliss of marathon running, backpacking, hot yoga, and esoteric knowledge.
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