SAT scores matter, even for test-optional colleges

by Grace

Do SAT scores matter in college applications?  Although students often hear that admissions officers place a relatively low priority on test scores and that the trend is toward “test-optional” admissions, it’s clear that performance on standardized tests remains important.   Inside Higher Ed had this recent report.

Many of the same colleges that have ended SAT requirements, noting that wealthy students tend to do well on the exam and that many black and Latino students succeed in college while not doing well on it, may trust the SAT in other ways. These colleges buy the names of high-scoring students from the College Board (and from the ACT) and use those names to recruit prospective studentsBloomberg reported. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College (which neither requires the SAT nor buys names), criticized the practice. “They take a stance that looks principled but is strategic,” Botstein told Bloomberg. “They say ‘I’m going to show myself to be open,’ but in reality they’re completely buying into the definition of a good student that is guided by the test.”

From Bloomberg:

Students are being duped by some schools into thinking that test scores don’t matter, when they matter a great deal for marketing outreach and prestige…. Test-optional colleges that buy names of high-scoring students are hypocritical….

Another benefit to test-optional colleges of recruiting students with high test results is that it can help raise their average entrance-exam scores, a metric used in determining some national rankings and a measure of prestige. Since students who don’t test well may refrain from submitting scores, that leaves high performers, or those who can afford prep courses and pay fees to retake the test several times, to bolster a school’s average scores….

In 2004, Pitzer President Laura Trombley wrote that the SAT “doesn’t really make any sense anymore.” The school, one of seven institutions comprising the Claremont Colleges inCalifornia, ranked 70th in the 2002 U.S. News & World Report list of liberal arts colleges. That year, the school’s average SAT score for verbal and math combined was 1,234, according to Pitzer data. In 2004, after it went test optional, its ranking climbed to 59, while the average score rose to 1,246. By 2010, it ranked 46th, while the score reached 1,293.

“It helped certainly to improve our rankings,” Trombley said. “That’s going to have a positive effect if our SAT scores improved.”

The College of the Holy Cross, which went test-optional in 2006, does not buy names of high-scoring students.

“If we were buying the names of students who scored very high on the SATs, to buy those names would be somewhat contrary to the message we would send about the importance of standardized testing,” McDermott said.

Many merit scholarships require SAT test scores, even at test-optional schools like Wake Forest.  The criteria for several of their merit awards, including the Nancy Susan Reynolds Scholarship, are described on their website.

Successful applicants have pursued the most challenging curriculum available to them and have achieved grade point averages and SAT scores that place them in the top few percentage points in comparison to their peers (often in the top 1 percent of their class, with SAT-1 scores above 1500).

Some test optional colleges that buy student names from testing companies:
American University  —  Bowdoin College  —  Denison University  —  Dickinson College  —  Mount Holyoke College  —  Pitzer College  —  Sewanee: University of the South  —  Smith College  —  Union College  —  University of Arizona  —  Wake Forest University

A response by Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer College.

3 Comments to “SAT scores matter, even for test-optional colleges”

  1. Holy Cross went test-optional???? I am amazed. I know them well because DH taught there for years. Very conservative, very status-driven…


  2. Going test-optional often helps a college climb in the ranks of listings. Here’s the entire list of “Schools That Do Not Use SAT or ACT Scores for Admitting Substantial Numbers of Students”.


  3. One word: Wow.

    Actually, three more: I’m not surprised.


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