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To hear students talk, you'd think that college admission was all about SAT scores-with maybe a quick glance at a student's transcript and ltters of recommendation. Keenly aware of the hype, colleges are quick to downplay the importance of scores. High school counselors fall somewhere in the middle; they seek to ease student overemphasis on the SAT while believing in their heart of hearts that the SAT is more important than the colleges are willing to admit.
We spoke to several college admission officers to get their views. "The SAT is one factor in our evaluation of academic achievement and potential," says Jerome Lucido, vice provost for enrollment at the highly selective University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "This evaluation includes coursework, grades, rank in class (or its many proxies), awards, achievements, and teacher recommendations. We also consider many personal factors. It is clear, then, that SAT plays a much smaller role in the overall decision than students would believe from the rumors they hear, from the rhetoric of the coaching companies, or from the popular press."
If you polled the admissions directors of fifty highly selective colleges, every one of them would probably agree with this statement. While downplaying the importance of the SAT, admissions officers defend its usefulness as one part of the application. In doing so, they walk a fine line. Even the College Board admits that grades in school are the best indicator of college readiness. But the colleges (and the College Board) maintain that the combination of high school grades and SATs is a better predictor than either measure by itself. "The tests are a national measure for all applicants, so it helps to equalize consideration of candidates across a wide national and international spectrum," says Karl Furstenberg, dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth College.
David Erdmann, dean of admissions and enrollment at somewhat selective Rollins College, expands on this reasoning: "Our experience is that grading systems, rigor, curriculum, standards, and expectations vary from school to school. Recommendations have the same flaw. The best recommendation for the top student at one high school may have the same praise that might have been heaped on the middle student at another high school. We believe that recommendations typically favor independent school students where the teaching load is lighter, where putting the best foot forward is an expectation, and where the recommendation is generally in greater depth. Essays suffer the same inherent flaw, or can, where the opportunity for assistance is greater. SAT or ACT scores help to level the playing field."
We suspect that many admissions officers would also agree with this statement. Yet if it is true that the SAT is the only universal yardstick-or at least true that admissions officers perceive it to be-that fact strengthens the hand of those who say that the SAT may be more important than the colleges say it is. Public perception of the SAT as a universal yardstick also plays a role. To a greater or lesser degree, all admissions offices feel pressure to maintain high average SAT scores among their entering classes-high scores look good, and scores are a factor in the rankings produced by U.S. News and World Report.
Of course, the colleges would be quick to point out that students who have high scores tend to bring other qualities that make them stand out. Then again, many of the low scorers who get in are athletes or others with special talents.
The gulf in perception that separates those on the high school side and those in college admission offices may lie in how each one sizes up the competition. Top students see themselves as competing against other top students. The student with a 2.5 GPA in a particular high school is not likely to be applying to the same colleges as classmates with a 3.7 or 3.8. Given that students with similar academic records apply to the same schools, what makes the difference? These students all get good recommendations and can generally write a good essay. Today's trend toward grade inflation accentuates the issue. Capable, hard-working students inhabit an increasingly narrow band of grades in the A/A-/B+ range. The SAT is often the only factor that puts meaningful distance between them. A strong student who does not test well may score in the 500s or 600s on each section for a combined score in the 1200s; a student with the same A average who is an SAT whiz may get 700s for a combined score in the 1400s or 1500s.
All this begs an important question: Does the SAT measure real abilities? Or merely test-taking skills? We'll weigh in on this raging debate a bit later. For now, suffice to say that if you're an able student with a strong transcript, your SAT score will determine your fate at selective institutions as much as or more than any other part of your application.
Before we leave the topic of the SAT's importance in admission, it is worth noting that most public universities that are less selective than UNC at Chapel Hill use a different model. With lots of applicants and relatively few admission officers, these institutions tend to rely on test score cut-offs for admission, though there is often an alternate route to getting in for students who do not achieve the requisite scores. The University of Arizona is a typical example. For in-staters, U of A requires that students meet one of the following four criteria for automatic admission: 1.) rank in the top 25 percent of the high school class, or 2.) have a 3.0 GPA, or 3.) a 1040 SAT, or 4.) a 22 ACT. Students who do not meet any of these requirements may be admitted if they fulfill other criteria.
Still other schools create a formula for admission that encompasses minimum GPA and test score requirements. Depending on the formula, it is sometimes possible to compensate for a low test score with a high GPA. Most colleges that use a specific score formula are up-front about it on their websites. Standardized test scores are not necessarily more important at these institutions than at the highly selective places, but at least you know where you stand.