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Dear Mitch,

I am going to take the SAT exam for the second time in a few weeks.  I did pretty good on it the first time, but I think I could better if I set aside a couple of hours each night to study, starting this week, and then maybe up it to even more time if I see it's working.  But I'm a little afraid that my grades might suffer a little, and I'm into sports and am always on the team of whatever game's in season, and I don't want to suddenly cut corners on practices or anything like that because I'm counting on a letter of rec from my coach.  (He of course takes the playing and the WINNING very seriously.)  Also, I don't want to let him and my teammates down by suddenly being a slacker.

So my question, after all that, is this:  How important are the scores of your SAT test compared to everything else?  Because, personally, I don't think a test that you do in just three hours should be the be-all and end-all of what the schools look at.  So I figured you must know, how important are scores really?

Thanks for getting to my question (if you do),

Scott S.


Dear Scott S.,

Excellent question!  In fact it has always surprised me that we haven't come across your question in such a straightforward form long ago.  Instead, we get lots of students writing in to say this:  Since they are not great test-takers, do they really have to take the SAT at all?

By the way, the answer to THAT one, about not taking it at all, is this: NO, there  is no law declaring that any high school student must take a particular test (As opposed to the mandatory nature of a driving test before being issued a driving license in the United States).

In fact, although you did not state where you live in your question, I can tell from the version of your email that comes through my system that you are writing from the Northeastern part of the United States.  In some parts of this country, a surprisingly high percentage of students opt not to take the SAT exam and choose to take another famous exam which many schools accept as a valid substitute.  That exam is called the ACT.  There are differences between the two tests, of course, but the ACT is (in my opinion) more similar to the SAT than different:  They are both Standardized exams, in the sense that your teachers or anyone in your district has any input to assure that it reflects the topics covered in your courses, and one's performance on the ACT is also reflected with a number that is compared with the numbers achieved by other students taking the same test on the same day.  Of course there are differences as well, but rather than go on and on about that, I think the most interesting development in the last few years is a test that many students opt to take which has the sole purpose of indicating whether their particular skill-set is more likely to make them shine on the SAT or the ACT. Also, some of the most competitive schools in the country like to see the students' results on BOTH exams, though this is almost never a necessity.

While there are always exceptions, currently, as I tap away at my keypad, in the world of the college admission tests, the SAT seems to continue to reign supreme for most of the highly competitive schools that are located in the Northeast, which is where I happen to live.  Speaking of exceptions, however, one very well-known, competitive and highly respected school made an announcement a few short years ago that took many educators by surprise:  The school's admission committee declared that it would NO LONGER consider the SAT exam as an element in their decisions regarding who is accepted and who is not.  Some suspected it might start a trend, but it has yet done so, and it does not currently seem likely to. 

As someone who spends a substantial portion of his time preparing students for standardized tests, the SAT being the one most commonly the focus, I have long held a view different from most students.  (Though, no matter how strong our different views are when we begin to prepare, within a few weeks I am often tickled at how many seem to adopt my point of view -- and this change is especially interesting to watch when dealing with a student who begins with resentment toward the whole idea of being tested.)

My view is this:  Rather than think of the SAT (or any other exam as the 'enemy'), why not think of it as an exciting opportunity?  After all, it truly is!  Consider this: the tens, probably hundreds of stressed hours you've spent over the three or four years of high school, doing what you can to get the highest grades you reasonably can without foregoing the rest of life.... and then you are given a chance to show in just three short hours (they really go quickly) that you are better than your grades reflect, well, isn't that worth fifty, sixty, or even seventy hours of work -- so that when your numbers are typed out in black and white, youu instantly rise above all the years of hours of semesters and quarters and trimesters and surprise quizes and term papers and well... you name it?  Now's your chance to show another side to yourself, the side the teachers you were convinced had something personal against you or just didn't understand the subtle brilliance of your writing, or penalized you for missing homeworks while you were working a night job to hep out your family, etc.

It can be done, and it is done all the time...

In just three hours, you have a chance to pop out of the muck and have people notice you, have teachers and guidance counselors wonder how they missed your remarkable ability -- even if it is in only in one of the three major parts of the test.

Furthermore, once you learn how the test-writers think, the exam is usually much easier than the work you do in high school.

BUT, to answer your question:  How much does the score you receive matter?

Well, that has changed in recent years.  I believe that for most schools in the country almost any score can be outshone by other achievements.  Still, the best predictor of how a student will do in his/her first year of college is his overall high school grades.  I used to tell students that, basically, there are two kinds of 'good' scores on the test:  the kind of score that will help you get into a school, and the kind of score that won't stop you from getting in.  In that latter case, there are schools that will look at your grades, community service, etc., and welcome you unless your SAT score indicates that you basically slept through the exam without trying at all.

But AGAIN, BACK TO YOUR QUESTION: HOW MUCH DO THEY MATTER?  WHILE I'LL REPEAT THAT IT DOES DEPEND -- on such things as your academic achievement, your athletic enthusiasm, sometimes your interview, and mostly the school that is making the decision, the answers that friends of mine on admission committees give me is this: Barring any abnormal circumstances (the blind student, the almost unbelievably impovershied one, the one that saved a town from  a flood, the test varies from about 18 to 25 percent of your criteria for admission.  The basic elements mentioned above count for about fifty percent of the picture, and guess what counts (for many schools as FAR MORE IMPORTANT than students seem to think -- at least judging from the way they treat this element relative to other elements. . . guess?? . . .??)

Your application.

Specifically, the 'long essay' on your application.

Clearly, I could relate a number of intriguing stories I've witnessed in recent years regarding how one's application essay substantially diminished or increased the student's chances, but that we will save for another time -- in the very near future.

Hope this helps,