Broadly speaking, college admission is based on:
(1) objective factors: the academic index
(2) subjective factors: “hooks” (such as athletics/diversity/connections) and activities/defined interest/essay/application
Unless one of those hooks is exceptionally strong, the objective factors dominate the initial screening of candidates. If students do not reach a certain number within the school’s academic index, then the student is not seriously considered.
That’s why test scores are so important.
While getting top grades is always critical for college admissions, school officials have told me that they have a difficult time deciphering whether a student with a 93 average from Lyme-old Lyme High School has performed better than a student with an A minus average from Valley Regional High School in Essex. Moreover, weighing extracurricular activities in a comparative way is highly subjective. The all state trumpet player versus the all state field hockey star versus the top community activist are all pretty similar from an objective standpoint.
Other than SAT-ACT scores, the other dominant way that candidates gain an upper hand in college admissions is through “stories” about their backgrounds. Those with compelling stories are from radically different upbringings than those from Connecticut’s lush suburbs.
Overcoming legitimate structural hardship – as in poverty, parental drug use, and growing up amidst violent crime – make for eye catching stories. Overcoming a lacrosse injury, getting cut from the school play, and dealing with an ADD diagnosis – standard Connecticut high school resilience stories – while unquestionably challenging to the students involved are not in the same league of challenge.
The SAT-ACT, like it or not, fair or not, becomes the criterion that can be evaluated most objectively. That’s why it is imperative for Connecticut high school students to maximize their test scores.