How important is the SAT in my college application?
One of the things I worried and wondered about as a Junior taking the SAT was how much it would matter in comparison to the rest of my college application. The answer (like everything in the college application process) is complicated.
Why colleges use your SAT scores
The great benefit of the SAT is that it allows colleges to compare students’ capabilities reliably across the country. The student buried in snow in the furthest tip of Alaska is taking the same test in January as the student in the Southern tip of Florida who can go out and bask in the sun after the essay. It’s often been referred to as an intelligence “yardstick” that’s verified by a third party (the College Board) so colleges can trust it, unlike many GPAs which can be artificially inflated by school officials.
How colleges use your SAT scores
The additional benefit of having one single number to compare students with is that it simplifies the application process. Every college has different average SAT scores of admitted students, and how you compare to that average is a huge factor in your potential acceptance. Many schools evaluate applications holistically (they read every part of your application before making a decision) but the SAT affects how the admissions officer sees your application. i.e. are you recovering from a low score or proving you’re more than a high score? Are your scores so low that there is no feasible way you could be admitted unless you have an insane story like your cat saved your life second semester junior year and you were so grateful you turned your life around?
This changes depending on what kind of school you’re looking at. Large competitive state schools (think UCs) get bombarded with thousands of applications, much more than any admissions team could feasibly read completely and thoroughly. How to they cut down on the number they consider seriously? By eliminating any applications with SAT scores below their threshold. The threshold won’t be their advertised admitted student SAT score range, but you still need to make sure you’re close enough. Not something any college will advertise, but a harsh reality of the process at colleges with large applicant pools.
Schools with smaller applicant pools and lower acceptance rates (usually expensive private schools) and will seriously read more applications with lower SAT scores, and fall in love with the other parts of your application. They have more time to spend getting to know you as a student through your essays and your interview notes.
SAT scores and elite schools
The other thing to remember about SAT scores is that they can only get you so far. Yes, a high score will get in the door at the Ivy’s (they will read your application), but you better have something else that distinguishes you in order to earn that acceptance letter. A perfect score in the math section better be backed by A’s in Physics, 5’s on AP Calculus tests, and an essay on why you love math or what you want to do with all you’ve learned. Once you start applying to elite schools in the nation, almost every applicant is in the ballpark with their SATs, but the ones that make it in are the ones with passion, drive, and demonstrated intellectual voracity.
At the end of the day, the colleges aren’t lying when they claim to evaluate applications holistically. Your SAT is just one piece in an entire application. Just because you’re 50 points lower than your dream school’s score range doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bother applying, it just means you should work hard the make the rest of your application really shine. Work hard in your classes to show that you’re dedicated, and like to challenge yourself. Polish your speaking skills so you rock the interview. Focus on what makes you better than your SAT scores in your personal statements. You never know what exactly a school is looking for, so take the chances and apply.
Also, if you don’t make it into your dream school because of your SAT scores, don’t worry. Keep an eye out for a future post on the cliché about getting into the school that’s right for you … and how it’s sometimes true.