Why the SAT’s aren’t “all that”

I was interviewed this week by a reporter for Voice of America (kind of weird thinking about how my humor might be perceived in Pakistan, where the interview is scheduled to broadcast). She had a slew of questions about standardized tests, especially the SAT. As usual for the press, parents, and a plethora of people claiming to be admissions experts (despite zero experience reviewing applications), she assumed that the SAT’s (or ACT’s) were at least as important, if not more so, than academic record in the admission process.


Before I get into all the reasons why standardized tests aren’t that important, let me concede why they ARE somewhat important. It’s crazy to think that admissions officers don’t use them – we do. In a few cases we use them because it tells us something useful about a student – more on that later. But first, time to admit the REAL reason most schools can’t break the BIG TEST habit:
1) it saves time (and therefore money)
2) marketing

These are pretty easy to understand. Colleges get thousands of applications. You all know that there are teachers in your school that give our high grades for minimal effort, and I’m sure you also have at least one dreaded teacher that glories in seeing just how miserable students can become when having almost no chance to get a decent grade. It’s reasonably possible that such teachers might even teach the same subject, and either by device or chance your GPA can be wildly different depending on which you get. Now multiply that effect across every school. Now add in different grading scales, grade calculation policies, and different opportunities/competitive levels within schools. In other words, it’s a hot mess.

Admissions offices get all these grades and do the best job possible of trying to tease out from all that information a reasonable level of comparison on academic record. That, however, can be time consuming and requires a large amount of data and experience.

Scores, on the other hand, are easy. They may not be telling us much, but hey – it’s a number we can easily understand.

So scores save time for admissions officers – LOTS of time. Unfortunately, prospective students also like to use scores to save time. If you look at most of the college rankings you’ll find they rely heavily on average SAT and/or ACT scores, and the number one question college representatives get at college fairs is “what’s your average SAT/ACT score”. In other words, you use scores to judge schools.

Of course, that makes no sense. You know that the scores don’t have much to do with who YOU are, so how can they possibly have much to do with how right a college or university might be for you. However, since colleges KNOW you’re going to ask the question and use the rankings, we tend to be over-concerned about the scores of our incoming students. To put it simply, the higher your scores the better we look, so magically through the power of the marketplace, scores have gained their own intrinsic value, even though independently they tell us very little about students. This is a great boost to the testing industry (motto: Tests are good – don’t think about it, just take them again).

Now that you know why we use them, next up a dose of reality about HOW we use them…which is a lot less than you think, despite the reasons above. Be seeing you.


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