The following is a guest post by Ellen Richards, the founder of Ellen Richards Educational Services, a college admissions consulting and tutoring firm in Los Angeles, CA.

Before a student enters their junior year of high school, they’ve probably already heard all about the importance of standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT. With so much stress on these tests, it’s a wonder why more students don’t  give up on college before they ever even begin the application process.

Every year the stakes increase and families are inundated with the statistics that reveal the impossibly high average test scores earned by the previous year’s candidates. In response to student stress, counselors and parents try to contest the rumors that spark these students’ fears by de-emphasizing scores on standardized tests. Visiting college representatives also convincingly downplay standardized test scores by repeating, “test scores are not that important; we like to take a holistic approach to our admissions process.” Indeed, each year more colleges change their policy to “test-optional.” However, evidence does not disprove the assertion that test scores continue to play significant role in the admissions process.

So, what’s true and what’s false? Should students fear the repercussions of their test scores? Do colleges really care? Follow me as I attempt to confirm or debunk popular rumors about the importance colleges place on standardized test scores.

False: Great Test Scores Guarantee College Admission

Everyone knows someone who got a perfect score on the SAT but was rejected from all the high-ranking colleges. When this scenario occurs people appear shocked. They simply cannot understand how a college could ever reject Billy – the student with the highest SAT scores in his class. People personalize Billy’s situation and apply it to themselves or their child and worry that if Billy earned almost perfect scores on his SAT but didn’t gain admittance to any “good” colleges, then who do colleges accept? They search for answers, speculating how their child will stand a chance against the competition. However, in their frenzied state, they do not stop to think that perhaps the colleges passed on Billy as a result of other factors.

One strong reason for rejecting a student who earns a high score on the SAT is that he neglected to take challenging classes or earned mediocre grades throughout high school. When this happens, students effectively tell colleges, “I’m smart enough to figure out how to excel in school, but I just don’t feel like it.” Therefore, performing well on standardized tests will not save the day or provide the student with a free pass.

True: Colleges Care About Interpersonal Skills

The other viable option for students receiving rejection letters from colleges in spite of great test scores most likely concerns their interpersonal skills. Keep in mind that when reviewing applications admissions officers really do think, “Would I want to be this person’s roommate?” or “Would I want to share a table with this person in the dining hall?” Sometimes what looks great in black and white actually has many shades of gray that cast doubt in the minds of college admissions officers. The gray emerges as they review the applicant’s file and read the interview report, the teacher recommendations and the student’s personal statement. Most people, including college students, prefer to interact with a person, not a robot. In this case, test scores will only take an applicant so far, but not as far as the entrance to an ivy covered tower – even if the applicant knows the definition of every word in the dictionary thanks to her thorough preparation for the SAT.

False: SAT Scores Don’t Affect College Admission

Contrary to claims by the College Board, research shows that SAT scores do not indicate a person’s propensity for success in college. However, the reality is that test scores do impact a student’s admission to college. No one can counter the statistics; the top schools promote the average test scores of their selected students like a badge of honor. While some admits may score slightly lower than the average, just as many score above it. In fact, a survey of fifty applicants to one of the nation’s top colleges will reveal that among those who were accepted, waitlisted and rejected, their test scores did not vary to any significant degree. However, out of this group of students, no one scored below the mid-600s on the SAT or below 29 on the ACT. The trend suggests that students must simply meet a minimum score on the standardized tests and once they reach that threshold, then their tests scores cease to carry any significance. In a sense, if a student makes it past step one (i.e. earns above average scores), then the holistic review of the applicant begins.

True: Standardized Tests are a Necessary Evil

So what can students do about this seemingly impossible predicament? The best answer:  face reality and strive to overcome the unavoidable challenge. Accept standardized tests for what they are – a necessary evil that will mean nothing to them or anyone else in ten years, but one that they must conquer today.

Do counselors and colleges cause more harm than good by downplaying the exams? One might respond with the adage “Forewarned is forearmed.” Begin the test preparation process early enough so that the exams do not take on a life of their own and become seemingly more daunting as time passes. Most students do best when they complete the SAT or ACT by April of their junior year, prepare for APs (if applicable) in May and plan to take only SAT Subject Tests in June. This test plan eases anxiety and allows students to properly prepare for final exams. Students who prolong the inevitable just make the impossible situation even worse. Attack the tests as though they are a virus that must be eliminated, then move on and focus on what really matters.  Students rarely regret maintaining their focus and tackling what they must do. After all, the best plan is one that enables a person to stay one step ahead of the competition.

featured image by Amy Ngo

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