Preparing for College

Do SAT's and ACT's Count Less Than They Used To?

Question: It appears that college admissions counselors are increasing the emphasis on high school GPA (adjusted for the quality of the HS program) and decreasing the emphasis on the SAT and ACT standardized tests. Is this just my impression or is it a trend?

Most admission officials will tell you that high school course selection and grades are far more critical than standardized tests scores. And, indeed, this is true... at least in theory. But therein lies the rub (and there always is one, isn't there?) At many colleges, applicant transcripts are so similar that test scores can often be a major tie-breaker.

Nonetheless, during the 15+ years that I worked at Smith College (1986-2002) I definitely saw the role of SAT's devalued, with Smith eventually deciding to go completely test-optional last year.

However, I feel that this trend (to discount or at least devalue test scores) is more prevalent among less selective schools or among those that are quite competitive (like Smith) but not hyper-competitive (e.g., the Ivies and their ilk). Institutions in this latter group are so swamped by amazing applicants--those who seem to have done pretty much everything perfectly--that test scores still play a very important role. But, even here, admission folks are not going to split a lot of hairs between a student who gets a 760 on a SAT test and one who scores a 790.

You'll also note that a growing roster of colleges-- including quite renowned ones (like Smith, noted above)--have joined the ranks of the test-optional schools and don't seem to care about test results at all. (For a complete list, FairTest does a great job of keeping current.) But my cynical side must warn you that, even at those places that don't require SAT's or ACT's, admission officials will use them when submitted, and the test outcomes might still be the tie-breaker that pushes a high-scoring applicant towards the "In" pile while a seemingly similar one ( but who didn't send any test scores) gets shoved away. (The analogy I like to use is that test-optional colleges can be a bit like online dating sites. Most romance-seekers will choose the prospective mate with the photo rather than the one whose profile looks good but whose picture is notably absent. But if the profile is really super, then the missing photo may not be a deal-breaker. Likewise, an otherwise strong applicant will be admitted to test-optional colleges without tests. A solid but unspectacular applicant may not be.)

So, to answer your question more succinctly but perhaps not very satisfactorily, I would say that, yes, tests are being devalued somewhat at some places ... but not at all.