The SATs, who doesn’t know about them? We all know that millions of high school students take these tests each year in order to impress top universities. Many students take SAT prep, spending up to thousands of dollars for SAT instruction, not including the costs of SAT prep books. The average SAT scores (25th/75thpercentiles) for Harvard and MIT are 2090/2390 and 2080/2330, respectively. Those are some pretty high scores, considering the 2011 national average SAT score is only 1500. Most students freak out when they look at these statistics and probably think that they have no choice but to study hours a week to hit 2200+. The truth is that the SATs aren’t as important as you might think.
It’s true that colleges do check your SAT/ACT scores and they are considered in college admissions. However, is it really that significant? The answer is no. Some colleges have begun to stop asking for their applicants’ SAT scores, such as Lawrence University and Drew University. What your SAT score demonstrates is your ability to take dozens of hours of SAT prep and memorize a bunch of words. It does not help you pursue a career because it’s just a standardized test. Let me ask you this, when you go to college, will you ever look back and say: Taking SAT prep during the summer and school year was one of the best decisions of my life! Probably not, and this is what colleges realize too.
If you’re one of the few people who are able to score above 2200 without any preparation for the SATs, that’s great. However, most people resort to prep in order to do well because the SATs have created this belief that the higher your SAT score is, the smarter and more likely you will be accepted into Ivy League. Here’s what Lawrence University’s dean of admissions said: “Back when kids just got a good night’s sleep and took the SAT, it was a leveler that helped you find the diamond in the rough. Now that most of the great scores are affluent kids with lots of preparation, it just increases the gap between the haves and the have-nots.”
Now you’re probably wondering how it all started. When did the SATs become a measure of one’s ability to spend hours at a prep class? According to Charles Murray, it happened shortly after the 1960s. Ironically, Charles Murray admitted it was because of the SATs he was accepted to Harvard in 1961 because during the earlier years of the 20th century, the elite universities were dominated by students from the top schools in the country, such as Philips Exeter Academy of New Hampshire and Philips Andover Academy of Massachusetts. Even in the present time, they have great connections with the Ivy League schools. The SATs provided Murray with a way to compete with those students because it told college ad- mission officers that just because he wasn’t from a school as great as Exeter or Andover, it didn’t mean he wasn’t a great student. So yes, the SATs were an indication of one’s academic aptitude back in the mid 1900’s. However, it soon changed.
As more people began to go to college, the SATs became more important to applicants to top universities. Stu- dents of different racial and economic backgrounds had begun to partake in the SATs, rather than just the upper- middle whites. After a while, the SATs established a belief that Ivy League hopefuls should take the test because it will increase their chances of admission. This started a whole industry based on SAT prep and of course, the vast majority of people taking the prep courses were those in the upper-middle class. For example, “Extrapolating from the 2006 data on means and standard deviations reported by the College Board, about half of the 700+ scores went to students from families making more than $100,000 per year.” Furthermore, former president of Princeton University William Bowen and his colleagues did a study on 11 prestigious colleges, including Princeton and Yale, which revealed that from the mid 1970s to the mid 1990s, “the proportion of students in the top SES [Socio-Economic Status] quartile rose from about a third to a half of all students, while the share in the bottom quartile remained constant at one-tenth.” Basically, the wealthier students soon became the majority of SAT test- takers because they were better prepared and thus, more confident.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), an organization that formed in 1937 in order to help high school students transition to college, has also recently voice concern over students’ obsession with performing well on the SATs. For example, Harvard dean of admissions and financial aid William R. Fitzsimmons said, “It would be much better for the country to have students focusing on high school courses that, based on evidence, will prepare them well for college and also prepare them well for the real world beyond college, in- stead of their spending enormous amounts of time trying to game the SAT.” In 2008, the NACAC published a com- mission report on what they found out about the SATs. One of their biggest complaints was that one’s SAT/ACT score is a bad indication of their academic achievement, as one’s high school performance and their IB/AP grades are better indicators. Not only that, but also the fact that one may actually pursue learning about these courses in college, while preparing for the SATs will have nearly no impact on one’s career in college.
I asked a couple of BSGE juniors, who are planning on taking these tests, what they think about the SATs and its impact on college admission. Ricardo Aguayo ’13 said, “Yes they are because they are the first things that colleges look at. But there are other things that colleges take into consideration like grades and extracurricular activities. SATs are just the first step that helps you get through the door.” Most of the people I talked to said just about the same thing, replying that they see SATs as just a way for college officers to set their expectations for applications. I share the same perspective; if it really was that important, average SAT scores would be a lot higher. Grades are better indicators of how great of a student you are, so if you think the SATs are bigger than grades, you might want to rethink that. Remember, you’re first and foremost a student when you’re to colleges. Imagine two students applying to Duke University: one student got 2400 on the SATs but only has a B+ average while the other got 2100 on the SATs and has an A aver- age. Who do you think would have a better shot? (Assume all other factors, such as extracurricular activities and recommendation letters, are the same). Daniel Targonski ’13 replied, “Probably the second person.” Honestly, what really is the difference between a 2200 and a 2400? The gap in the number of questions you get correct, between 2200 and 2400, is so small, on average a bit over 10 questions, that it would only require even more hours of prep to help you close that margin. Is this what colleges are testing students on, how many hours we’re willing to spend on SAT prep? Although I am censuring the SATs rather harshly, I do not recommend that you not care about the SATs at all. I think that if you’re going for a top university such as MIT, it’s necessary that you have a decent SAT score because at this point, top colleges have started to realize that SAT tests are faulty and can’t truly determine an applicant’s intelligence, but it won’t be for a while until all elite schools decide to leave the SATs as an option. It’s one of those things that we know is wrong, but we do it anyways. However, I still think that paying thousands of dollars on getting a good SAT score is pointless because you can achieve the a similar score with just SAT prep books and your own hard work. If you think about it, there’s really nothing special about prep classes and the only thing they offer is an instructor who grades your essays for the writing section. I myself took an SAT prep course for about 3 weeks during the sum- mer break, but all I really did was do practice tests. Do we really need to spend a lot of money and allocate many hours on preparing for the SATs? Hopefully we will one day move past pointless standardized tests and focus on the more practical factors in academia.