Less than you think, but more than you’d like.


These tests loom large in the college admissions process.  And no other aspect of the process generates as many questions—and anxieties—as the standardized tests.

On the one hand, you should not tress too much about your scores.  They are only one element of the entire application, and other elements are generally more important.  Based on an annual survey by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), only 53.3% of colleges and universities view scores on the standardized tests to be of “considerable importance.”  More colleges and universities cite grades in college prep courses (81.5%) and the strength of the high school curriculum (63.7%) as “considerably important.” (Figures are from the State of College Admissions 2014).

Furthermore, a growing number of colleges and universities are going “test optional” in their admissions process.  According to Fair Test, a non-profit organization that promotes the elimination of the standardized tests in the admissions process, more than 850 colleges and universities now deemphasize the tests in their admissions process.  This list includes some of the most selective colleges in the United States.

SAT blocks

Among the top 50 national universities (as ranked by US News and World Report), both Wake Forest University and Brandeis University are completely test optional, and New York University and the University of Rochester are “test flexible” (they allow students to pick and choose which test scores to send).

Among the top 50 liberal arts colleges, 17 are test optional, including Bowdoin, Smith, Wesleyan University, Bates, Bryn Mawr, College of the Holy Cross, Mount Holyoke, Pitzer, Skidmore, Union College (NY), Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall, Trinity College (CT), Bard, Connecticut College, Sewanee-University of the South, and Gettysburg are all test optional.

Four other liberal arts colleges are “test flexible:” Middlebury, Hamilton, Colby, and Colorado College.

So if your scores are not stellar, there are still ways to be academically competitive at some of the best colleges and universities in the country.

Nevertheless, these test scores do matter, both for admission and for the awarding of financial aid and scholarships.  Therefore, it is worth your time and energy (and your money, probably) to prepare well for them so that you can get the highest score possible.

To continue with some statistics, only 2.2% of the nation’s colleges and universities say that the standardized tests have “no importance” (again, according to NACAC’s State of College Admission 2014).

From the admissions perspective, more schools will consider you seriously if you have high scores.  If you have lousy grades, a high score can give an admissions officer some evidence that you are capable of doing college level work.  If you have lousy test scores, on the other hand, even the A+ student will have some difficulty in demonstrating they have a strong command of English grammar and basic computational skills.  Especially at the more selective schools, including the Ivy League, Stanford, and MIT, you clearly have a better chance of admission with a set of high test scores.

ACT blocksThese scores matter even more when it comes to the awarding of financial aid and merit-based scholarships.  Nearly all universities will give preferential treatment (read:  more money) to those students who have both good grades and high test scores.  Many colleges and universities key their merit-based scholarships directly to test scores: the higher the score, the more scholarships you may receive.

So from a dollars and cents perspective, spending a bit of money to raise your ACT score a few points higher may mean thousands more dollars in scholarships from certain universities.  In some cases, even a single point on your ACT composite score can mean the difference between a scholarship of $5000 per year and $10,000 per year.  If you do the math, this means that you could get $20,000 more free money for higher education just by studying a bit harder for the tests.  Investments in test prep can repay themselves handsomely, depending on which colleges or universities you may be targeting.

Bottom line:  while standardized tests are not the only factor in college admissions, they do matter a lot.  The more selective the university, the more they matter.

And if you’re looking for financial aid or merit-based scholarships, your scores on these tests may make the difference between affordable and unaffordable.

So don’t neglect to prepare.  A better score means more and better options for you as you continue to navigate the entire college selection and admissions process.

If you need help interpreting your scores, finding a great test prep tutor, or developing a strategy of which test you should take in order to be competitive for your preferred colleges and universities, give us a call or contact us through this website.

Published by Mark Montgomery

Mark is a leading educational consultant. His experience as a professor, college administrator, and youth mentor help him guide students from around the country and around the world.

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