Why the SAT’s just may be all that

A couple of days ago I was ranting about how little the SAT’s matter, and all the reasons they end up being used anyway, leading to some questions about how they DO get used. There are three basic uses in admissions – unfortunately only one has any statistical validity, and even that can be pretty suspect.

Perhaps the worst use of standardized test scores happens when colleges set a minimum score for admission or scholarship. This is commonly called having a “cut-off” score. The practice is so widely understood to be a lousy practice that even the schools that do so generally won’t admit it. These institutions may not even bother to have a human review any applicants with scores below some set level. Unfortunately, those minimum scores tend to be very arbitrary, at least from a data standpoint. Test scores have fairly wide standard deviations, and only gain what little predictive strength they might have when used in conjunction with academic records. In other words, using them by themselves, which is what schools are inherently doing when they use a cut off, is entirely unjustifiable from an educational standpoint.

Another way that colleges use the scores unreasonably is to use very small score differences to pick among candidates. As I mentioned before, this is a big time saver, but using tiny score changes to decide between applicants has no statistical validity. Conveniently, evidence that this is a terrible use of scores AND that it goes on anyhow is detailed in a new report from the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, so it’s not just my paranoid delusions (my therapist will be SO relieved). As mentioned in the report, this is a huge boon to the testing industry (motto: you are your scores – and you can afford to be better!), and obviously advantages anyone with the cash.

Probably the best use of scores is as a comparison point with applicants’ academic records, and this is most helpful when a student has demonstrated some academic potential suitable for the school and has even stronger test scores. There is some (SOME, not much) evidence that in some cases this can work in reverse – that students with reasonable academic records for a particular school but weaker test scores might be less likely to succeed. (I’ve found in my own research, however, that academic performance in college of applicants with really strong high school records doesn’t change with test scores, at least at Mason. More on that soon).

Bear in mind the information I posted a few days ago – the reality that the first two are statistically invalid doesn’t mean even very reputable schools won’t use them in these ways. Admissions offices are just as, if not more, likely to be using them for marketing purposes and/or to save time as they are to be using them as valid evaluative tools.

All that being said, the scores are still WAY less important than the media, or eve the report cited above, would tend to lead families to believe. In every survey and study conducted on the subject, high school academic records (for freshman) and college academic records (for transfers) are WAY (WAY WAY WAY) more important in admissions decisions than test scores. Way. Be seeing you.


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.

Family wealth and admission

It’s breaking news!!! The admissions process isn’t fair! I know so because The Washington Post had a big article recently (ok, April, but I’ll admit I didn’t notice until one of our readers forwarded it to me for comment) on the subject. Their intrepid reporter, after what I’m sure was a grueling round of research involving at least three phone calls, uncovered the previously untold story that rich kids have an advantage in the admissions process.

I know, shocking. Take a moment to recover your composure. I’ll wait.

The article specifically cites the advantage that rich kids have on the SAT, blaming access to test preparation courses. The author fails to mention that 1) the SAT isn’t NEARLY as important to the admissions process as the reporter seems to think or that 2) the rich are advantaged in the admissions process for a whole bunch of OTHER reasons.

Even those of you who don’t get to obsess about admissions the way I do are probably able to guess that access to tutors, not just test tutors but the kind that might actually teach you stuff; personal college counseling; parents who have been through the system (or better yet, are graduates of your dream school; or even better have their name on a building at your dream school) is likely to give one a leg up over less affluent applicants.

Worse, the article totally misses one of the great secrets of the admissions process – that there are many competitive institutions that actually look at higher family income as a plus factor in the admissions process. This started a few years back when the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, of which I am a proud and long-time member, decided that we really liked rich kids. I’m kidding of course (mostly). The discussion was actually focused on whether admissions offices could use financial aid data in the admissions process.

Once upon a time, admissions offices were supposed to be “need-blind.” This meant that we were supposed to evaluate students based on their academic records (or jump shot), and not on how much an applicant might be able to pay. Some very good-hearted people claimed this made admissions way too hard since they ended up admitting way too many students without money that needed way too much financial aid, which meant less money for everyone. So instead, said these Samaritans, we will review their financial aid information and admit fewer of the really poor kids (or more of the really wealthy ones) – that way everyone has more money. Isn’t that wonderful!?

If you find the math doesn’t work for you, you’re not alone. Soon, however, you’ll go to college where you’ll learn “numbers” can be guided by “spin”.

To be fair, most colleges really are still need-blind…usually. Where you see the most impact of the change is in waitlist decisions: students with high need may be disadvantaged, especially in a year like this one when many schools went very deep into their aid budgets to try to attract their top recruits. A handful, however (and these are generally not the more moderately priced institutions), use income aggressively in the admissions process right from the start. Mason, I’m proud to say, remains need-blind in our admissions process, but there’s no doubt that the market pressure to make changes in the policy are an annual consideration.

So to recap – money good. More money better. Talent best of all. Be seeing you.

What to do if you get waitlisted, deferred, or denied…

I first posted most of this information in December last year, and it has proved to be one of the most popular posts on the site, so it seemed timely to share once more.

When it comes down to it, no admissions decision is really final, but your investment of time and energy may vary widely depending on which letter you receive.

Being deferred is generally an indication that your record is borderline for admission, and the admissions office wants to see some portion of your senior year grades and/or more recent test scores before making a decision.  In that case you want to get your grades and scores as high as possible.  You may also want to send a note to the office letting them know that you are really interested and that the school is your first choice, if that’s the case.  You don’t need to send any other supplemental information unless the school asks for it, or unless there is something significantly different/new.  So what is significant?  Say you never sent them a copy of your garage band’s really sweet track – that’s probably not helpful unless you’re a PHENOMENAL musician AND applying to a music program (and even then it might never get a listen). On the other hand, say you win a Nobel Prize – any Nobel prize will do – that’s likely something you should share with the admissions officers.  You really can’t appeal a decision to defer, since it’s not really a decision so much as a post-poning of your decision.

If you get denied, you are unlikely to change the decision unless you believe the admissions committee made a huge mistake (if your name is John Smith and you a have a 4.0 and perfect SAT’s, are valedictorian, and won a Nobel Prize, but were denied by your local junior college, you have a reasonable chance that there’s been some confusion with your file).  It is possible that there is something the committee missed, overlooked, or just didn’t know. You can, at most institutions, appeal your decision, although very few institutions announce this or even mention it.  If you wish to do so, you can send a letter to the Director of Admissions asking for a review, but I encourage you to consider whether you have any new information to offer.  If there is nothing new to consider, and unless that new information is really compelling, it’s unlikely the school will change their decision.

Waitlisted  – also known as purgatory or limbo.  I suggest, sort of like deferred, you do your best to get your grades and scores up if you can, and send a note saying just how much you want that school.  Some students try to appeal waitlist decisions, but I’ve found, often as not, that this pulls them out of waitlist consideration and into an appeals process, which is unlikely to be successful, and may even hurt your chances on the waitlist.  Some schools offer waitlist interview opportunities – you should TAKE THEM.  No one is opposed to a little in person begging and groveling, given the opportunity.

The hardest thing to do is not to be miserable over a less than positive admission decision.  Too often students tell me that their lives have been RUINED by the stupid decisions of some admission committee.  Please, don’t give them (or even me) that much power. One mom complained that I just didn’t know her daughter as well as she did.  Right. That would be because she is…wait for it…not my daughter.  All colleges like to talk about how personally we treat you, but at the end of the day admissions officers are making decisions about your life without spending much, if any, time with you. They only have what’s on paper (or the screen), and maybe a fwe minutes from an intereview, and that is NOT YOU.  There are 4,000 colleges and universities in the country and MANY will be great for you.  Don’t let a bunch of people you never met be decision makers about your feelings of self-worth.  They don’t know YOU, just a bunch of numbers. And yes, some might even make stupid decisions. 

Of course, it’s likely that Mason IS the perfect school for you (because we’re just that good), but wherever you get admitted, bear this in mind:  As of the last big Department of Education study, 60% of all students in higher education attend more than one institution. Translation – hundreds of thousands of students transfer each year.  The U.S. has the greatest community and junior college system in the world. Don’t be afraid to pick one as a great place to start.  Be seeing you.

SAT score choice policy – new fun, same stress

In the interest of disclosure, I recently accepted a nomination to be the Virginia representative to the national assembly for the ACT, which, some argue, is the only competition for the SAT. I don’t think that makes me biased, since I’m also a member of the Collegeboard (motto: “You’ll be a member if you know what’s good for you.”), and since I’m generally a fair-minded and unbiased person (did I mention that George Mason University is the best college on the planet?).

Actually quite a few of my colleagues, admissions and guidance officers, are REALLY negative about the Collegeboard, even many who are members. They don’t come right out and call them the evil empire, but they do tend to all hum the Star Wars “throne room theme” every time a CB representative walks into a meeting (that’s the one they play for Darth Vader, although I’m sure you all knew that).

Unlike those colleagues I generally think the Collegeboard (Motto: The most important educational organization…EVER) tries to do good in the broad sense, and was probably trying to do so with their new score choice policy. As I wrote a while back when they announced this new a policy, in a nutshell, you can choose which of your scores to send to different colleges and universities. The ACT has had this for quite a while, and for most of that time Collegeboard (motto: We didn’t change our policy – you just misunderstood us) bashed that policy, but, now that they have it they seem to like it fine. Even though I’ve written about this before, the anxiety level over the change that I’m seeing on list servs, web sites, and in the media leads me to share once again.

I don’t really have any problem with the policy, but you should know two things. First, it’s unlikely to make ANY difference to your admission. As I’ve written many times, colleges and universities will use your best scores, and use the best portions from different sittings (so English section from one time, Math from another, to get your best total score). Also, the few schools that REALLY care about seeing all of your scores are STILL MAKING YOU SEND THEM ALL. In other words, there are a group of schools that won’t let you use score choice, so it really doesn’t matter. For the sake of simplicity I call these the “So incredibly uptight universities that if we placed coal under their seats we’d all have diamonds” or SIUUTIWPCUTSWAHD schools, or “annoying” for short. At the other end of the spectrum you have schools that know that you’re more than a test score, many of which not only embrace score choice (despite the reality that it’s largely meaningless) but even go so far to offer score optional admissions. We can call these the “Schools that actually care about” institutions or “George Mason University” for short.

My buddy Brad MacGowan, Guidance Newton North High School (MA), wrote this to the admissions list-serv: “I think that if you asked adolescents if they would like to be able to “hide” some of their SAT scores to “reduce student stress and improve the test-day experience” their first reaction would be an emphatic “YES!”. I also think that if you asked counselors who work with adolescents on a daily basis, and have been through one or more admission cycles, if this will “reduce student stress and improve the test-day experience” you would get an emphatic “WHAT?”. The consequence of this new policy will be more testing (for those who can afford it), more test prep (for those who can afford it), and more stress (for everybody). But that doesn’t matter because it also means more revenue (for you know who).”

In other words, there is SOME possibility that the Collegeboard (motto: Why take a nickel if we can get a quarter? Educationally, of course), added score choice because the SAT was losing some market share to the ACT, or because score choice encourages students to sit for the test more times (ok, just really the wealthier students that can afford more tests). I believe, however, that the Collegeboard was trying to a good thing, since if this was just about making money they would be better off just adding another mandatory writing test. Be seeing you.

Should you take the ACT or the SAT, and new score policy explanation

After the past few posts on test scores, I’m pretty bored with the subject. Nevertheless, amid reports that ACT scores are down this year (overstated – they’re just down 0.1, and that’s equal to 2006 scores), I hear again the question about whether the SAT or the ACT is better. Before I answer, I’ll remind readers that, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m on the Virginia and DC/Maryland ACT executive boards. I receive no compensation from either testing service.

With that out of the way: For those unfamiliar, the ACT includes science and social science sections, and their writing test is optional. There are a bunch of theories about gender, about students who do better in algebra vs. geometry, and about different learning styles each determining which test you should take. I haven’t found any studies that take a look at the subject, let alone any conclusive findings.

There are very few, if any, competitive institutions left that prefer one test or other. All institutions will use your best score, which brings up a key side point. SAT has introduced new stress into the process with a new score policy. They sent me the explanation below:
“Designed to relieve student stress and improve the test-day experience, this new SAT® score-reporting feature provides students the opportunity to select which scores they send to colleges by test date for the SAT and by individual test for SAT Subject Tests™. Students can send any or all scores to a college on a single report. It will not cost more to send one, multiple or all test scores, and students can easily sign up through the Web.

The new score-reporting feature will launch in Spring 2009 for all students. Starting with the class of 2010, this feature will help lessen the anxiety associated with testing, and allow students to put their best foot forward on test day. For more information on the new score-reporting policy, please click here.”

I don’t think this “will help lessen the anxiety associate with testing.” I think it will lead to students taking more tests, and stressing about which scores to send. I’ve said it before – bad scores are very very very very unlikely to hurt you in the process. Universities want to use your best scores. We realy don’t care if you got there by some kind of test prep help, or practicing, or if you drank a magic potion that gave you mystical “SAT powers”. Better test scores make colleges look better, so we use your best ones, even if you send us dozens.

With most students I ecnourage them to try both the SAT and ACT, and focus on whichever one they feel like they will score best. Some students that know they’re going to schools that aren’t using the writing tests have been showing love for the ACT since you can opt out of taking the writing portion, which sounds good to me.

Regardless, read through the last few posts and their related comments, and keep in mind that the test scores are FAR less important than your academic performance, and that there are schools (Go Mason!) that offer score optional admission paths. And remember to send a thank you to those nice people from the Collegeboard for trying to lessen your stress…right after you finish taking their mandatory writing test. Be seeing you.

Will low SAT or ACT scores ruin my admission?

As simple as the question sounds, it’s hard to answer. As I wrote in the last couple of posts, by and large your test scores are FAR less important than your overall academic records. They do count, however, and usually a lot more than most of the noncognitive factors (essays, recommendations, leadership, etc). Even so, there are a lot of cases where a low score won’t be detriment at all.
To start, keep in mind that there are LOTS of colleges and universities. A low score in one college’s admission process may be pretty high at another, so don’t just assume that your scores are awful becuase your friend Johnny Testtaker is in the 99th percentile. On the other hand, maybe your scores really are in the sumpster, in which case you may want to consider a place that won’t consider your scores.
There are basically three types of institutions that won’t consider your scores:
Open enrollment schools that accept anyone with a high school diploma or the equivalent – this includes most community colleges and quite a few four year publics.
Competitive schools that just don’t use scores ever – these are pretty hard to find.
Competitive schools that offer a score optional process.

A colleague at one of the score optional institutions (I think it was Mike Sexton at Lewis and Clark) suggested that a student should consider score optional programs if you feel your score is not reflective of your past work, and/or predictive of your future work. It is rare that a student would be considered a reasonable candidate for score optional admission if their academic record isn’t very strong. In addition, at Mason (did I mention we are the largest competitive institution in the U.S. to offer a score optional admission process?), we add more weight to the noncognitive factors, especially looking for evidence of leadership and motivation. You can get the details on our program on our score optional admissions page.

You can find lots of other score optional institutions through the Fairtest website, but bear in mind that not all of the schools they list as score optional offer a fully score optional admission process. I know that’s confusing, but it’s a reminder to carefully check the policies at any school where you plan to apply.

So, one more reason not to stress about the tests – they just might not make that big a difference, and you could decide to just ignore them completely! Be seeing you.

P.S. – even as I wrote this post, the Richmond Times Dispatch was printing this story about an increase in ACT test takers in Virginia that mentions Mason’s score optional program. By way of full disclosure, I’m on the executive council for ACT in Virginia and for the DC/Maryland region.