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Do Test Scores Matter For College Admission?

Test scores matter enormously for admission

How Much Do Test Scores Affect Admissions?

Yesterday was easier than today is for students.


The level of competition for spots at top colleges has increased so significantly that the prototypical all-around star student only has a reasonable chance to get into a reasonably good school.

One of our clients from a few years back from Guilford, Connecticut, had to face the reality of this challenge.

He held a high-level student council position, was a top athlete, and in the top 10% of his class. He had spearheaded several community service projects in Guilford. His engaging personality helped make him popular with his school’s faculty and administration.

Essentially, our client was the type of kid who would have been a shoe-in at most every college… if this were the 1980s.

The problem: his SATs were solid but not great, hovering around the 600s in each subject area.

His parents, thinking with a 1980s mentality, assumed that schools like Yale were within his reach and that, at the very least, schools like Boston College would be his fallback.

His parents were educated people who had solid reasons for their lack of knowledge about the current admissions landscape. This was their oldest child. Other Guilford parents told them how lucky they were to have such a superstar. “He’ll have no problem getting into college,” they were often told.

And that was true. He would have no trouble getting into over 2000 colleges. The challenge was that he, like many others, only had his sights on what he perceived were “Top 25” schools.

Largely because they thought they had nothing to worry about, the student and his parents did not pay that much attention to college admissions issues until senior year. From their perspective, his grades were good so he had never really prepped for tests other than looking at a computer program or two.

His parents were stunned when college counselors told them that Yale was out of the question and that Boston College was very unlikely. Boston College attracts an enormous amount of applicants from Guilford, and neighboring high schools such as Madison, Branford, Old Lyme, and other area schools so that even star students from the Shoreline, CT area have a hard time gaining admission.

And, yes, while the student’s scores were good compared to most, the scores were not even close to “Yale good” and also not good by BC standards.

We met the students and his parents in the late fall of his senior year after his eye-opening meeting with his advisors.

With our help, he ultimately gained admission to a reasonably good school. But, at least in the repuation game, the school was a notch below Boston College and schools of that type.

While we are sure that he will recover from this situation and do well, we remember his shell-shocked look when we first met him after being informed him of his admissions chances.

Among his parents’ first words: “We wish we had known. We would have started earlier.”

The Better Way

We met with a similarly credentialed student as a client several years back, whom we met in-between his sophomore and junior years at East Lyme High School in Connecticut.

While not quite as impressive as the aforementioned case study, his background was solid — three-sport athlete, good community service, and top 15% of his class at East Lyme.

This student had a similar challenge. He wanted to attend the Naval Academy or some other highly competitive university with an ROTC programs. However, his PSATs as a sophomore were in the 500 range for each subject area — not close to good enough.

His parents knew that his scores were not sufficient and started earlier in the process with The Learning Consultants.

Given that this student was the military type, he was easy to work with and did all that we asked – including building his relatively poor vocabulary.

His junior PSAT jumped such that his scores were all around 600, with his math 630.

He continued working.

His first SAT showed moderate improvement such that all his scores were above 600 and his math was now 640.

He continued working.

He had a second jump with his second SAT. His reading and writing scores were now in the high 600s and his math was in the low 700s.

He took the SAT a third time as a senior and wound up with a cumulative 2120 (700 reading, 730 math, 690 writing).

By this time, the student, as teens are prone to do, amended his college list, deciding against the Naval Academy but still focusing on other top schools.

His grades and activities continued to be stellar and his test scores put him in consideration for most every school in the country. He is now in a top 20 university and delighted that his hard work and focus paid off.

Why Do Scores Matter?

Students at competitive high schools should be thankful that test scores are part of the admissions process.

Those in the competitive environments of Madison, Guilford, Old Lyme, East Lyme, Old Saybrook, among many others in the Shoreline Community, as well as those at the variety of outstanding private schools such as The Williams School,Hopkins, Choate, Xavier High School, and Mercy High School in Middletown, CT.

Madison’s Daniel Hand High School is an great example of what we have seen regarding the discrepancies in the strengths of various high schools and why test scores can help applicants.

Madison has an abundance of extraordinarily smart high school students. Quite commonly, we meet extremely bright students who have class ranks that are not particularly impressive.

If test scores were not part of the admissions landscape, then the grades and class ranks of these Daniel Hand High students would compare unfavorably to students from less competitive environments.

In many cases, Madison students have helped themselves tremendously by using their SAT and ACT scores to boost their admissions possibilities.

Here’s why (and we’re aware that we are showing a bit of East Coast elitism) —

Students who attend Daniel Hand High School in Madison are competing against some of the very brightest high school students in Connecticut, which perenially ranks among the top three best education states in the country.

When a student from Daniel Hand is ranked in the top 40% he or she might have been ranked in the 20% in many schools in Connecticut and in the top 10% in many schools across the country.

One of our students from Daniel Hand was lamenting about standardized tests. She was hovering around the 50% ranking in her class. However, her test scores were better than 90% of the country, giving her a distinct advantage over many of her classmates.

We told that the student that she should be delighted that tests were a large part of the admissions equation. In fact, her high scores played a critical factor in helping her get into the college of her choice.

Shoreline, Connecticut Prep School Students and SAT Scores

Given our Shoreline and Southeastern Connecticut locations, we work with a large number of prep school students studying for the SAT.

While there are many variations on the themes, there are two basic ways of grading at such schools.

Some schools, such as The Williams School, in New London, CT, have a rigorous system.

Students from The Williams School are probably as well-prepared as those from any school in the country when it comes to dealing with the work demands of college.

We have had Williams School students return from college to tell us that college was actually easier than Williams. Needless to say, it’s a fantastic school.

But given the small and super-smart student body at Williams, not everyone can get As. We have met numerous students who need top test scores to illustrate their potential, since their relatively average grades do not help them stand out.

At the other extreme, other prep schools create unusual grading systems such that the students do not get traditional grades (as in A, B or C or numerical equivalents). Instead, the student gets comments and perhaps some nearly indecipherable grade like “Highly Qualified.”

In talking with busy admissions officers, particularly at smaller liberal arts schools, we hear that the time and effort needed to carefully examine such transcripts necessarily creates a higher level of focus on their test scores.

As one admissions official told us, “We can’t make heads or tails out of [the school’s] report card, so we place a more significant emphasis on SATs.”

Scholarships and Test Scores for our Southeastern, CT Students

Figuring out how to pay for college has become a major consideration for our clients.

Test scores have become a surprisingly strong weapon in the hunt for scholarships and merit aid.

We often delight every May when we receive notes, letters, and gifts from our Shoreline, CT clients who were awarded merit aid along with admission.

Here’s how the process often proceeds: students gain admission to schools – due in part to their test scores – but then the dance changes.

Students who had been ever hopeful that the colleges would like them are now in the position of power. Colleges are evaluated, in part, on their “yield” (how many students accept admission after being accepted). For example, if a college admits 1000 students and 950 accept, then the college has a 95% yield. That would be a great number.

Colleges with low yields look undesirable. In addition, from a planning perspective, college administrators develop headaches when their budgets for new students are affected adversely by low yields. So, for example, if the college expected 600 students to accept admission but only 400 do, then the budget allotted for freshmen dorms, faculty, facilities, etc. is out of line.

This leads to a wonderful reversal of power. Colleges want students – particularly the stronger students – to attend and offer merit aid to entice these students. Whenever money is involved the appearance and reality of objectivity becomes even stronger. For that reason, objective factors such as GPA and test scores become even larger considerations when awarding money in scholarships.

For some of our students, these merit scholarships have enabled them to attend a college they desired. For others, they are faced with positive dilemmas. We recently worked with a student who had high SAT scores from Stonington, CT who was faced with a choice of either attending Brown (full tuition) or Miami but with $90,000 over four years in merit aid. When the student chose Miami, her Dad offered me Dolphin-Patriot tickets as a thank you!