Last Updated on January 15, 2024
Virtually every high school student planning to apply to colleges or universities is aware of the importance the SAT often holds in admissions processes. So, not surprisingly, students often wonder, “Why is the SAT so important?” They also wonder what the purpose of the SAT is and whether it’s necessary to take it when many colleges have gone test-optional.
So, in this article, I’ll discuss why SAT scores are important to schools, how taking the SAT can benefit applicants, and more.
Here are the topics we’ll cover:
- The SAT Exam Is for What Purpose?
- Why Are SAT Scores Important to Colleges If They Can Use GPAs?
- How Much Does the SAT Matter to Colleges?
- How Important Are SAT Scores for College Applicants?
- Do You Need to Take the SAT to Get Into College?
- Is the SAT More Important Than the ACT?
- What Is a Good SAT Score?
- If SAT Scores Are Important, Why Have Many Colleges Gone Test-Optional?
- Key Takeaways: Why Is the SAT Important?
- What’s Next?
Let’s start by discussing the purpose of the SAT.
The SAT Exam Is for What Purpose?
Key to understanding why the SAT, as well as its cousin the ACT, is important in college admissions is understanding the purpose of the test. People often think the SAT is a test of intellectual skills, or something along the lines of an IQ test. However, the purpose of the SAT isn’t to test intelligence. The SAT tests two things: how well a student learned in high school and how ready the student is for college.
When you think about it, these two things are exactly what admissions officers would want to know about an applicant. After all, testing people’s intellectual skills wouldn’t do colleges much good. A person could be very skilled intellectually and not be ready to handle college. On the other hand, a student who has learned well in high school and is ready to handle college is the type of student that colleges want.
Accordingly, the SAT tests knowledge and skill in reading, writing, and math. We can see that these skills are exactly what students have the opportunity to develop in high school and need to have to handle college.
The SAT tests how well a student learned in high school and how ready the student is for college.
Now, you may wonder why colleges don’t simply use students’ GPAs and other information rather than also use SAT scores. So, let’s discuss the answer to that question.
Why Are SAT Scores Important to Colleges If They Can Use GPAs?
High schools across the country and in different countries can be quite different from each other. So, the coursework and grading at one school can be quite different from those at another school. Thus, simply considering the classes taken and grades earned by applicants from different high schools doesn’t allow colleges to get a clear picture of applicants’ relative strengths.
In contrast to coursework and grading at different schools, the SAT is standardized. In other words, SAT scores of students at different schools provide similar information. So, SAT scores enable colleges to evaluate applicants’ knowledge and skills in a standardized way. Thus, using SAT scores, colleges can get a clear picture of applicants’ relative strengths. In fact, in many cases (though not all) SAT scores are better indicators of how well applicants will do in college than GPAs are.
That’s not to say that colleges don’t consider applicants’ coursework, grades, and other information. They do. SAT scores just enable colleges to have additional data points and confirm that the picture they’re getting from GPAs and other information is accurate.
Colleges use SAT scores because they enable the colleges to evaluate applicants’ knowledge and skills in a standardized way.
So, now we understand the reasons why SAT scores are important to college admissions committees. The next question you may have is, “How important are SAT scores to colleges?” So, let’s discuss that too.
How Much Does the SAT Matter to Colleges?
To get a sense of how much the SAT matters to colleges, we can consider the case of MIT. Because of the COVID pandemic, MIT, along with many other colleges and universities, went test-optional in 2020. In other words, MIT gave applicants the option of applying without standardized test scores.
However, after going test-optional, the admissions committee at MIT found that standardized test scores were so important in the admissions process that applicants who didn’t submit scores were at a significant disadvantage relative to other applicants. So, MIT reinstated its requirement that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores, basically to be fairer to applicants.
Now, it is the case that all students take rigorous math courses at MIT. So, the confirmation that students have strong math skills provided by SAT Math scores is particularly important to MIT. Thus, standardized test scores are more important to MIT than they are to most other schools. Still, seeing how important test scores are to MIT gives us insight into how important they are to schools in general.
The short answer to the question of how much the SAT matters to colleges is that it matters quite a bit.
Because SAT scores are very useful in the admissions process, the SAT matters quite a bit to colleges.
Of course, another question you may have is, “How important is the SAT for me?” So, let’s discuss that question as well.
How Important Are SAT Scores for College Applicants?
We’ve seen that scores on standardized tests are useful to colleges. In fact, they’re so useful that MIT started to require SAT or ACT scores again after going test-optional. So, what does this information tell us about how important the SAT is for college applicants? It tells us that applicants can increase their chances of getting accepted by including strong SAT scores with their college applications. In other words, it tells us that SAT scores can be pretty important for college applicants.
For one thing, since admissions committees use SAT scores to confirm that the picture they’re getting from other information is accurate, your SAT scores can help them be more confident that they should admit you. For example, say two applicants have strong GPAs and look similar in other ways, but one provides a high SAT score, and the other provides a lower SAT score or none at all. You can see that admissions officers may be more confident about admitting the applicant with the high SAT score than about admitting the other applicant.
Additionally, applicants from high schools that tend to give relatively low grades or who for other reasons have lower GPAs than other applicants can indicate to colleges that they have learned in high school and are ready for college by providing strong SAT scores.
Finally, the awarding of merit-based financial aid or scholarships is often partly or completely based on scores on SAT exams. So, SAT scores can help students pay for college.
SAT scores can be important for college applicants because SAT scores can make applications stronger and help pay for college.
So, does this information mean that you need to take the SAT to get into college? Let’s explore that question.
Do You Need to Take the SAT to Get Into College?
As we’ve touched on, many four-year colleges and universities that once required standardized test scores have gone test-optional. Additionally, some schools have gone test-blind. In other words, even if you were to submit SAT scores during the application process, they wouldn’t consider them. So, depending on the schools you’re targeting, you may not be required to take the SAT to get into college.
At the same time, as we’ve seen, SAT scores can be important to colleges, even test-optional ones. So, an SAT score can make your application stronger and help you get admitted to your school of choice. Thus, while you may not absolutely need to take the SAT to get into college, submitting SAT scores with your applications is likely still a good idea.
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If schools you’re applying to accept standardized test scores, you can make your applications stronger by submitting SAT scores.
Now, you might be wondering whether the SAT is more important than the ACT. So, let’s answer that question as well.
Is the SAT More Important Than the ACT?
The short and simple answer to the question of whether the SAT is more important than the ACT is no. The College Board had the SAT created decades before the ACT was created. As a result, in some geographical regions, the SAT still has more name recognition than the ACT. However, the SAT and ACT test relatively similar things. Also, SAT and ACT scores have similar ability to predict how applicants will do in college. So, the two tests are considered equally valid by colleges and universities that accept standardized test scores.
The SAT and ACT are considered equally valid by colleges and universities that accept standardized test scores.
Seeing that the SAT can be important, you may be wondering what a good SAT score is for you. So, let’s discuss how to determine the answer to that question.
What Is a Good SAT Score?
A good SAT score is whatever score will help you gain admission to your target college or university. A common way to identify that score is to consider the average SAT scores of your target schools. The guideline often used is that a score at or above a school’s average is a good SAT score for that school.
Of course, there are other factors that come into play. One is that not all schools report average SAT scores. Some report what is known as the “middle 50%” instead. Another is that what SAT score makes sense for you depends on not only your target schools’ average SAT scores but also the strength of other aspects of your applications.
Thus, there are multiple things to consider in determining what is a good SAT score for you. Check out this post on what a good SAT score is for more advice on setting your SAT score goal.
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Finding out the average SAT scores at your target schools is a good first step for determining what a good SAT score is for you.
Given all of this discussion of how important SAT scores are, you may be wondering why schools have gone test-optional. So, let’s cover that topic as well before we wrap up.
If SAT Scores Are Important, Why Have Many Colleges Gone Test-Optional?
Colleges and universities have long felt that SAT scores help them to evaluate the skills of applicants. However, some people have made the case that people from certain backgrounds are less likely to know how to or have resources to prepare effectively for the SAT. So, when the COVID pandemic made testing impractical, and in some cases before then, colleges tried going test-optional.
The schools found that, without test requirements, they got more applications from students from backgrounds considered disadvantaged. The schools then did their best to evaluate applications without test scores and, at least in some cases, ended up with more diverse student bodies than they had previously had. So, after the pandemic subsided, many schools continued to be test-optional, saying that test-optional policies are fairer and promote diversity.
However, there is some debate about whether test-optional policies really result in an improved, fairer college admissions process. In fact, MIT and others that have studied the results of test-optional policies have found that such policies can make it harder, rather than easier, for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to get accepted to colleges. So, for this and other reasons, it’s not clear how beneficial test-optional policies really are.
Many schools have gone test-optional in response to the idea that test-optional policies are fairer, but the benefits of doing so are unclear.
What is clear is that, for many schools, SAT scores remain an important tool for evaluating applicant readiness for college. So, let’s wrap up by reviewing the key takeaways from what we’ve discussed.
Key Takeaways: Why Is the SAT Important?
In exploring the question of why the SAT is important, we’ve seen the following:
- The purpose of the SAT is to test two things: how well a student learned in high school and how ready the student is for college.
- SAT scores are important to colleges because they provide a standardized way to evaluate applicants’ skills and confirm that the picture admissions officers get from other information is accurate.
- Standardized test scores matter a lot to colleges because the information they provide is very useful.
- SAT scores matter to college applicants because they can help admissions committees be confident that an applicant is a good fit, make up for relatively low GPAs, and help students pay for college.
- You don’t absolutely need to take the SAT to get into college, but SAT scores can make your application stronger.
Now that you understand the importance of the SAT, you can learn more about how to prepare for it by reading this post on how to start studying for the SAT and this one on the best way to prepare for the SAT.