In the wake of a decision to redesign the SAT, top admissions officers from around the country emphasize that the test is only a small part of what gets a student accepted.
Admissions officers at top-ranked universities do not use the SAT to determine whether a student is college-ready.
Instead, SAT scores help colleges interpret students’ overall academic performance in relation to the national applicant pool.
“Generally speaking, the SAT is not very important,” said Marilyn McGrath, director of undergraduate admissions at No. 1 ranked Harvard College. “It helps us calibrate a student’s grades.”
Jarrid Whitney, executive director of admissions and financial aid at the California Institute of Technology (No. 10) said that although many of Cal Tech’s admitted students have high test scores, those are not the primary factor considered in the application process.
“The SAT is still just one part of the entire package,” Whitney said. “It doesn’t drive our decisions.”
President of the College Board David Coleman announced recently his plan to redesign the SAT. Coleman did not name specific changes, but Whitney said he hopes Coleman will seek feedback from admissions officers and educators.
The changes, however, may not make a difference for admissions because of the way colleges use the scores.
Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions at Duke University (No. 8) also called the SAT “not terribly important.” Duke’s admissions office uses the SAT and grades as one of three pieces in rating a student’s academic credentials, he said.
“We look at the academic credentials (the scores and the grades), what’s in the school profile (what courses the school offers) and what a student takes,” Guttentag said.
Duke then assesses whether the student’s overall academic credentials are competitive within the overall applicant pool.
“Academic credentials become much less important once they’re in the range of academic competitiveness,” Guttentag said.
All three admissions officers said they accept ACT as well as the SAT.
“We are fully aware that [standardized tests] are not a perfect measure,” McGrath said. “Some people perform very well on exams and others don’t and we understand that.”
McGrath said Harvard looks for a record of excellent performance over time, a requirement a standardized test can’t satisfy.
“You have to have done well in all of the things you put your mind to doing,” McGrath said. “The application should show a record over time of academic success. Without that, it doesn’t make sense to bring a student to Harvard.”
At Cal Tech, a record of interest and involvement in science and math activities is its top priority, Whitney said.
“If they’ve done nothing in the realm of math and science, that student won’t be admitted,” he said. “The priority for us is making sure that the student is a good fit at Cal Tech.”
After a student is deemed academically competitive, the two most important pieces of a student’s application at Duke are the letters of recommendation from the school and the extracurricular activities, Guttentag said.
“We’re looking for evidence of engagement and impact, whether it’s intellectual, social, in the community or in the classroom, those two qualities become very important,” he said.
As for the changes to the SAT, Guttentag said it is not the test he wants redesigned, but the influence a family’s income can have on the results to be reduced or eliminated.
“The SATs and other similar tests, they’re useful to us in terms of understanding a student’s academic preparation,” he said. “But they still correlate with family income. If there was a way to have them be less influenced by the degree of educational and social advantage a student has, that would be better for the admissions process.”