Do standardized test scores really matter?

July 10, 2018

In the last decade, the idea that colleges no longer care that much about standardized test scores has become prevalent in the admissions discourse. Many schools themselves like to brag about how they view test scores as just one of a multitude of factors in the admissions process. Yet like a 7th grade boy who spends two hours in front of the mirror every morning trying to perfect his Justin Bieber bangs while simultaneously proclaiming that he “doesn’t care what anyone thinks,” the facts about test scores quite simply belie the claim.

Despite media talk and institutional reports of the SAT and ACTs diminishing role, the data suggest that standardized test scores have actually become more important in recent years. Rankings are still driven in part by test scores. The admissions process at most institutions (with few exceptions like Reed College) is still beholden to and driven by the almighty rankings. In fact, for their 2018 rankings, standardized test scores accounted for 8% of U.S. News’ ranking algorithm, which is a greater weight than factors such as a college’s graduation rate, how many students were in the top 10% of their high school graduating class, and alumni giving (an indicator of graduate satisfaction). Not surprisingly, the “top” schools remain the ones whose freshman classes have the highest SAT scores. Even with over 1,000 schools now test-optional, over 82% of colleges still state that test scores are important in their admissions decisions. Almost 55% of colleges consider them to be “very important,” compared with just 46% of schools 25 years ago.

As a general rule, larger schools rely more on test scores than do smaller liberal arts colleges merely as a tool to pare down a massive applicant pool. In a pragmatic sense, it would be difficult for admissions officers at a school like UCLA to wade through 113,000+ applications, sans SAT/ACT data, without feeling like a harried cashier in a Weimer Republic farmer’s market (“I’ll get you your cabbage as soon as I finish counting your 200,000,000,000 marks!”).

On the other side, the last decade has indeed seen a rise in “test-optional” schools. American, Bates, Bowdoin, the University of Chicago, Connecticut College, George Washington, Bryn Mawr, Franklin & Marshall, Hamilton, Pitzer, Bowdoin, Union, and Wake Forest are just a sampling of the highly-selective schools that have adopted a “test optional” policy. While this choice may open doors for the test-averse, don’t mistake the intent of the policy as wholeheartedly charitable or representative of a sweeping philosophical shift. Test-optional schools generally only receive scores from applicants who excelled on the test, which ends up raising the average scores they can report to U.S. News. Thus these institutions can accept lower-performing applicants with full impunity.

College Transitions Bottom Line: Test scores are necessary but not sufficient for admission at the vast majority of highly selective schools. At smaller institutions, a student with an excellent overall profile but weaker test scores may receive a closer look, but unless that school is test-optional or that applicant can throw a 70-yard tight spiral, the scores still stir the drink.