Whether you’re a high school senior applying to college this autumn or even just a bright-eyed freshman who is just getting used to having grades and extracurriculars activities actually matter, chances are that you’ve heard about the SAT. And if so, chances are that your parents, teachers, school counselors, or even the industry dedicated to preparing for this standardized test has implanted the notion that the two hundred twenty-five minutes you spend on a Saturday morning shading in bubbles are some of the most important minutes of your life. The number that shows up on College Board’s website is considered by many to be the prime factor in getting into college, and it’s not uncommon to hear people saying they want to retake the test just to get a score as few as twenty or thirty points higher. But how much influence does that score really have on your admissions decisions?
Before we go any further, it’s important to make the distinction between the questions of whether it does matter and whether it should matter. The latter question is contentious in its own right, as there’s a correlation between high SAT scores and high-income families. The SAT isn’t even a requirement for certain schools. For the schools that do require it, it’s obvious that it does matter to some degree, but it’s also obvious that that degree will vary from college to college. Using websites like Big Future or even the official sites of the schools you’re applying to, you can find out how much relative weight factors like SAT scores have when applying to a particular college, as well as the SAT ranges for the middle 50% of accepted applicants. This range, however, is not the end all be all of admissions; the bottom end is not a cut off score, as 25% of people admitted scored lower. Nevertheless, there are definitely certain colleges–Texas public schools Texas Tech and the University of Texas at Dallas come to mind–that have minimum scores for to be guaranteed admission, but this doesn’t mean that applicants with lower scores have no chance.
When it comes to most all college admissions, it’s crucial to keep in mind that ultimately, your admissions officers–i.e., the people who will be looking over your application and essays–are humans, not robots, so there will always be a little bit of subjectivity. Holistic admissions processes, in which officers give comparable weight to other aspects of an application such as high school course load, extracurricular involvement, recommendations, etc., can be especially murky. This is necessary because colleges receive lots of applications from people who performed well on their standardized tests, and many times, someone with a perfect 2400 might be rejected while someone with a slightly lower score is accepted. Dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke, Christoph Guttentag, says, “Academic credentials become much less important once they’re in the range of academic competitiveness.” Fifty points more or fewer of an SAT score are unlikely to be what distinguishes an acceptance from a rejection (and thus might not be worth retaking the SAT for). Nevertheless, the fact remains that selective schools admit students who have high SAT scores; the question is whether high-achieving students just happen to have high SAT scores or if high SAT scores are a sign of a high-achieving student. This also may be in part due to the effect high scores have on a college’s ranking and prestige. Even Peterson’s, a college admissions company, states that “the most selective schools will emphasize your test scores while many two-year and non-selective schools won’t.”
Schools with higher acceptance rates usually do not put as much weight on SAT scores–or at least, they are more likely to accept applicants with a broader range of scores. However, this doesn’t mean that SAT scores are not important for other things. For example, even if your score wasn’t as crucial for admissions, it’ll likely influence how the college awards merit scholarships (which, if you spent money on SAT prep courses or books, can be one clear way to get your money’s worth).