The SAT is Very Important. Or, Maybe Just Kind of Important. Either Way, You Have to Take It. Or Maybe, Actually, You Don’t.

The SAT, the Standardized Aptitude Test, began as a way to provide a quantifiable standard by which admissions committees could assess an applicant pool that was often larger than the number of spots they had available for candidates. In its original incarnation, it was also intended to allow prospective students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to be noticed by admissions committees.  In practice, however, the SAT (or, for that matter, ACT) has not achieved this goal. The SAT/ACT is a highly mythologized and, for some, anxiety-producing undertaking. Because the admissions process is holistic, it is difficult to precisely gauge how important the SAT/ACT is for college or university admissions.

To begin with some demystification: because the SAT or ACT is only one factor in a very holistic application review process, neither will a high score won’t get you in (by itself) nor will a low score keep you out (within reason; most schools do post ranges for the average scores they tend to accept). The SAT/ACT is supposed to provide calibration of a student’s academic record, relative to the national average. Because each high school is different (some offer an IB curriculum, some have fewer available AP classes, some are underfunded, and in some, grade inflation is rampant) using GPA alone as a standard is insufficient (it’s like comparing various types of apples, all grown in different climates, treated with different fertilizers, subject to different weather, picked at different times, and transported by different companies).

At the very least, all students applying to college in the same year have taken the same exam (or, a different form of the same exam). In practice however, the SAT/ACT differentially prefers some students, which results in a playing field that is far from level (but we’ll return to this later).

What the SAT/ACT doesn’t test: intelligence (human intelligence is too complex to be measured by a 4 hour exam!), or how well a student will perform in college. Admissions committees see grades over a student’s high school career as a better measure of future success: instead of providing a measure from just one day, GPA illustrates a student’s academic passions, dedication, and academic curiosity over four years. The SAT is a sprint, high school is a marathon. Grades, over four years of high school, are a better indicator for how a student will perform during her four years of college.

What the SAT/ACT does test: how well you perform on one exam, on one day. While, generally students’ scores aren’t going to vary wildly from test to test (unless they are rigorously studying and internalizing the tricks and patterns or something catastrophic befell him during one test administration), sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you get stuck on a problem and time slips away. Doing poorly on the SAT/ACT doesn’t mean you’re unprepared for college or you’re unintelligent. It can mean anything from not getting enough sleep the night before, being an anxious test taker, or simply not having had the resources to take a test that doesn’t test for knowledge, but rather, for a very specific SAT-intelligence.

Regarding the rampant inequality inherent in the SAT/ACT: income can, for many students, improve scores. Having the resources to attend selective high schools, take expensive prep courses, hire private tutors, or dedicate more time to study can benefit those who have access to such resources. Studies have shown that women, underrepresented groups, and students in underserved communities are most at a disadvantage when taking the SAT. 

As a result, in recent years, colleges and universities have been reacting to this fundamental inequality. Many schools have been opting to go test optional; that is, standardized testing is no longer a requirement for admission at many institutions of higher education. Though it will likely be a long time before the SAT/ACT is fully eradicated from the college admissions process—in a time when college applicants are soaring, many still view it as a way to weed out candidates—there is certainly hope for those who would prefer to apply without standardized test scores.

So in sum, how important is the SAT/ACT? It is certainly not the end all, be all. That said, while it is still utilized as a standard—albeit one of many—it is important to aim for as high a score as possible. A good score never hurt anyone.

For those taking the SAT/ACT: get a good night’s rest, sharpen your pencils, bring a sweater—the test rooms are always so cold—but don’t consider the SAT or ACT to be a measure of your intelligence. Best of luck.

For those choosing to apply test optional: studies have shown that you will be every bit as successful as your peers rushing to bubble in a final answer before time is called.