Do Standardized Tests Scores Really Matter?

Test scores are necessary — but not sufficient — for admission at most highly selective schools
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Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem has adopted a “test-optional” admissions policy.

In the last decade, the idea that colleges no longer care that much about standardized test scores has become prevalent in admissions discourse. Many schools like to brag about how they view test scores as just one of a multitude of factors in the admissions process.

Yet, like a seventh-grade boy who spends two hours in front of the mirror every morning trying to perfect his Justin Bieber bangs while simultaneously proclaiming that he “doesn’t care what anyone thinks,” the facts about test scores quite simply belie the claim.

Despite media talk, and institutional reports of the SAT’s and ACT’s diminishing roles, the data suggest that standardized test scores have actually become more important in recent years. Rankings are still driven, in part, by test scores. The admissions process at most institutions (with few exceptions, like Reed College) is still beholden to and driven by the almighty rankings.

In fact, for U.S. News and World Report’s 2018 college rankings, standardized test scores accounted for 8 percent of the publication’s ranking algorithm, which is a greater weight than factors such as a college’s graduation rate, how many students were in the top 10 percent of their high school graduating class, and alumni giving (an indicator of graduate satisfaction). Not surprisingly, the “top” schools remain those with freshman classes having the highest SAT scores. Even with 1,000-plus schools now operating with a test-optional policy, more than 82 percent of colleges still state that test scores are important in their admissions decisions. Almost 55 percent of colleges consider them to be “very important,” compared with just 46 percent of schools 25 years ago.

As a general rule, larger schools rely more on test scores than do smaller liberal arts colleges merely as a tool to pare down a massive applicant pool. In a pragmatic sense, it would be difficult for admissions officers at a school like the University of California at Los Angeles to wade through 113,000-plus applications, sans SAT/ACT data, without feeling like harried cashiers in a Weimer Republic farmer’s market.

On the other side, the last decade has indeed seen a rise in “test-optional” schools. American University, Bates College, Bowdoin College, the University of Chicago, Connecticut College, George Washington University, Bryn Mawr College, Franklin & Marshall College, Hamilton College, Pitzer College, Union College and Wake Forest University are just a sampling of the highly-selective schools that have adopted a “test optional” policy. While this choice may open doors for the test-averse, don’t mistake the intent of the policy as wholeheartedly charitable or representative of a sweeping philosophical shift. Test-optional schools generally only receive scores from applicants who excelled on the test, which ends up raising the average scores they can report to U.S. News and World Report. Thus, these institutions can accept lower-performing applicants with full impunity.

The bottom line: Test scores are necessary but not sufficient for admission at the vast majority of highly selective schools. At smaller institutions, a student with an excellent overall profile but weaker test scores may receive a closer look, but unless that school is test-optional, or that applicant can throw a 70-yard tight spiral, the scores still stir the drink.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at