Recently, I found myself with the immense good fortune of studying abroad in Spain, and the immense bad luck of being immersed into my least favorite type of conversation in the world: the “college admissions journey.” Don’t get me wrong, I love my share of gossip over a glass of Limón Fanta as much as anybody else, and learning that my roommate had her heart set on Princeton but hated Penn, that my friend Sharon – a math major through-and-through – seriously considered going to a music conservatory for a while, and that one of my politically-savvy classmates nearly made it off the waitlist at Columbia all still fascinated me. What can I say? You can tell a lot about a person by what they look for in a college.

The problem with this conversation lies with that one guy – there is always that one guy – who turns a perfectly interesting and diverting conversation into yet another match of oneupmanship by bringing in his stats. More specifically, his SAT score. Now, I don’t think I need to tell anyone that talking about your SAT score while in college is exceptionally irritating to every listener in a five yard radius, but just in case you ever have any doubt in your mind about bringing it up as a point of conversation: talking about your SAT score while in college is exceptionally irritating to every listener in a five yard radius.

And what made this particular mention of one random guy’s SAT so grating? His insistence that if he had just scored fifty points higher on his 2300 SAT, he just knows that MIT would have taken him off the waitlist. Now, not only is this the humblebrag to rule all humblebrags, but it’s also completely false. Because here’s the truth: the SAT – the exam, the myth, the legend – isn’t as crucial to your overall college application as you might think.

I know you think I’m out of my mind here, but hear me out. According to Marilyn McGrath, the director of undergraduate admissions at Harvard College, “Generally speaking, the SAT isn’t very important.” Take a moment to read that sentence again. Reflect on it. Whip out the yoga mat, the Buddha statue, and the healing crystals and meditate on it if you’d like. Repeat it like a mantra under your breath until you believe it, because it really is true.

This isn’t to say your SAT scores – or any of your standardized testing scores for that matter – aren’t important, because they are. They’re just nowhere near as impactful on your college application as the general population of high schoolers and their parents seem to believe.

So, I think it’s time we set the record straight about what purpose your SAT score actually serves in your application: the first round of applicant disqualification. I realize that phrasing doesn’t make the SAT sound any less terrifying, so let me explain. An exceptionally high SAT score will never be the reason you are accepted at an elite university, but an exceptionally low SAT score might be the reason you are rejected. I say “might” because many colleges don’t advertise a minimum SAT score; however, they all have a general idea of where they’d like members of their incoming class to score. If you score at or above that number, they have an extra incentive to peruse your application with focus and excitement, since you’ve demonstrated your ability to handle their level of academic rigor; score below, and some of that incentive is immediately gone. Sparknotes: a poor SAT score will probably keep you out of a selective college, but even a perfect one won’t be the reason you get in.

Jarrid Whitney of Cal Tech Admissions also affirms that ”the SAT is still just one part of the entire package,” and that “it doesn’t drive our decisions.”

So what does drive the decisions? More “hard factors” akin to the SAT – your GPA, class rank, AP or IB exam results, and the like – demonstrate that you’re intelligent, ambitious, and capable of handling a challenging workload. All of these factors “get your foot in the door,” so to speak. They say to the admissions officer, “I could be academically successful here.” But what really gets you accepted in the end are your “soft factors” – think essays, interviews, and recommendations – that allow a school to determine your character and how well you’d fit into their student body. These say to the admissions officer, “I could flourish intellectually here, and improve and diversify the student body as a result.” This second statement is the one that gets you admitted.

So it’s clear that when people overstate the importance of the SAT by basing their acceptance or rejection on hard factors alone, they only aid in skewing people’s idea of how the admissions process actually works. Here’s a snippet of a conversation that you can hear at just about any neighborhood barbecue around May: “Well, Carol I just don’t know what happened. Robbie had a 2200 SAT score – 2200! – but Princeton just thought they were too good for him, apparently.” Come to find out five minutes later in the conversation, Robbie’s GPA was pretty mediocre, his interview didn’t go very well, and his one extracurricular activity was playing trumpet in the marching band. Was Robbie’s SAT score good enough for Princeton? Most likely yes. Was the entire rest of his application? Of course not. An impressive SAT score only gets your foot in the door – the rest of the application is what gets your name in the “admit” pile.

Perhaps even more upsetting than people placing the entire weight of their application on their standardized testing scores is the fact that, due to misinformation about how testing functions in an application, students with scores that are already perfectly good – think anywhere from 2100 to 2300 – insist on chasing that perfect score in a silly (and expensive!) attempt to improve their app. Instead of studying hard to improve their GPA, logging in more hours at the volunteer animal shelter, or trying out for that musical they’re dying to star in – all things that would genuinely impress an admissions team – they’re wasting time and money doing something that won’t affect their application in the slightest. Kevin McMullin of admissions counseling website Wise Like Us says, “Test scores are never the most important part of the admissions process.  You’re better off not treating them as if they were.” Please take your standardized testing seriously, but don’t spend time you could be using to take an extra AP class that seems interesting, participate in an extracurricular activity you love, or craft even better admissions essays to raise an already good score into the stratosphere.

Anyone telling you that SAT is the most important part of college admissions is either working for a tutoring company or moonlighting for the College Board. Study hard, hone your testing skills, but learn when to let your test scores be, because the SAT is not worth your angst.

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Elizabeth Watson (just call her Beth) is a senior at an itty-bitty private Catholic high school in Virginia. In addition to writing for The Prospect, she writes and performs sketch comedy with her improv troupe, rehearses like mad for school theatre productions, suits up for forensics competitions, and writes poetry for her school’s literary magazine. A brief rundown of Beth’s favorite people and things ever to exist in no particular order: hole-in-the-wall bookshops, sweaters, Jane Eyre, peppermint tea (in a Troy and Abed mug, of course), Broadway musicals, British period dramas, Neil Patrick Harris, and Hugh Jackman. Beth’s long-term goal in life to is to become Julie Andrews, but for now she’s focusing on surviving the final stretch of high school and getting into college–hopefully as an English major

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  1. Rachel on August 30, 2015

    Great and informative article! This helped relieve my stress about the SAT.

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