College Admissions and Tests: Truth vs. Fiction

Many people believe that a perfect 800 SAT score is the key to gaining admission to America’s highly selective colleges. This is a fallacy.

Although it is true that higher scores and grades are more beneficial than lower ones, and that state and local colleges focus on “numbers” more than anything else, highly selective colleges look at admissions from a broader perspective.

Premier colleges evaluate applicants in three areas: academics, activities, and personal qualities. Although SAT and ACT scores and school grades are the starting point for evaluating academic potential, they are not the only things considered. Research, publications, competitions, honors, and other academic indicators – including SAT Subject Tests and AP tests – are used to adjust an applicant’s “academic” rating.

Right now, high school juniors are focused on taking SAT and ACT tests.

Most colleges don’t care which test an applicant takes; you can submit scores from either test, and there is no advantage to taking both. The colleges will look only at an applicant’s highest scores, so it is highly recommended that students take a college admissions test more than once, to achieve the highest possible score.

Applicants should also understand “super-scoring.” If a college accepts super-scoring, it will consider only the highest scores in each individual section of the test, regardless of when the test was taken. For example, if a student achieves a high math score on the January SAT, but the highest reading score comes from a May SAT, the colleges will super-score the results and consider only the January math and May reading scores.

Not all colleges will super-score. Today, most of the highly-selective colleges do super-score the SAT, but not the ACT. Some will super-score both; some won’t super-score at all. The admissions websites of each college explain their testing policies.

Beyond super-scoring, are there differences between the SAT and ACT?

Regardless what the official websites say, both the SAT and ACT are based on logic and reasoning even more than on substance. Test results are largely dependent upon an ability to understand the test questions, not just what is taught in school. On the math section, the ACT is commonly considered to be more “valid” – testing formulas and actual math – than is the SAT. This can be a good or bad thing, depending upon a student’s strengths and test methods.

Because both tests evaluate an applicant’s ability to answer questions, applicants should study HOW the test questions are written. College admissions tests do not “reinvent the wheel” with every new test; they repeat the same question formats, with different specifics, to ensure the validity of each test. Private test tutors do a better job of “teaching the questions” than do most institutional instructors.

Finally, remember that selective colleges review ALL of an applicant’s academic achievements. Scores on AP exams and SAT Subject Tests can raise or lower an “academic” grade significantly. Low AP scores often raise red flags about a student’s true academic potential, so prepare for all tests seriously.