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 & 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 (with few exceptions like Reed College) is still beholden to and driven by the almighty rankings. In fact, for their 2014 rankings, U.S. News actually upped the importance placed on test scores in their methodology. Not surprisingly, the “top” schools remain the ones whose freshman classes have the highest SAT scores. Today, 59% of colleges state that test scores are of “considerable importance” in their admissions decisions, placing it third behind grades and strength of curriculum. A little more than two decades ago, only 43% of schools said the same.

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 86,000+ 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, Bryn Mawr, Connecticut College, Franklin & Marshall, Hamilton, Pitzer, 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.


Andrew Belasco

A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.