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If you are a high school junior or senior, the SAT is probably pretty high on your list of things to worry about. SAT scores are one of the huge realities of American education, and many students regard them as the single most important factor in the college admissions process. The College Board, which develops and administers the exam, states that the test “is an important resource for colleges. It’s also one of the best predictors of how well students will do in college.”

Contrary to this statement, current research indicates that the SAT is a less-than-accurate predictor of performance in college. Steven Syverson points out, “in spite of variations in grading standards and rigor at high schools across the country, it is widely acknowledged that a student’s record in high school is the best predictor of success in college” (60). Colleges have noticed. In recent years, several schools have implemented a test-optional admissions policy, based on the “big picture” of student grades, essays, and the interview process. According to Syverson, “The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) has compiled on its Website (http://fairtest.org) a list of more than seven hundred four-year colleges that admit a substantial portion of their students without using standardized test scores” (62).

Still, stress persists. Helana Pennington, an AP student at Thomas McKean High School, took the SATs twice in her senior year.  When asked about her experience, she remembers, “The first time, I was freaking out. I was trying really hard to get into Penn State and their expectations are really high and I know I’m a terrible test taker.” It turns out her “freaking out” wasn’t necessary; she got into the program “with a lower SAT score than they wanted. I guess my grades canceled out my bad SAT score.” Admissions officers know that the SAT is only one demonstrator of student ability, and Lanie’s hard work in school paid off.

So, is it time to break that No. 2 pencil in half? Well, not just yet. Many schools still use the SAT (especially the essay section) as a factor not only in admissions but also to determine which classes students should take. So how can you figure out what scores you need and how important they are? As with everything else, do your homework. Visit the websites of the schools you want to apply to. Their admissions page should tell you how heavily they weigh SAT scores and give you a range of scores for the current freshman class. Don’t be discouraged if your scores aren’t right there – Syverson points out that students often interpret the average scores as minimum scores, “thereby potentially discouraging applications from students who would be well-served by the particular institution” (58). Also check to see just which tests the schools require and how they use them. For instance, the University of Delaware recommends that students, especially those applying to the honors program, take two SAT subject tests in addition to the SAT I (the “regular” critical reading – math – writing test). Many schools also use the essay section to place students in freshman composition courses. According to Education Digest, “Recent studies by the Universities of California and Georgia actually tout the benefits of the section, saying it is ‘the most predictive section of the test for determining first-year college performance… demonstrating that writing is a critical skill and an excellent indicator of academic success in college.’”

So – bottom line: How important is the SAT? Well, it may not be a matter of life or death, but it does still matter. You can make the test work for you by knowing what to expect before you walk in. Brush up on your reading, writing and math skills, and practice timed writing prompts. Learn smart testing strategies, take a prep course, and do whatever you need to feel comfortable taking the test. Most of all, understand that the SAT, like your high school grades, your application essay, and your extra curricular activities, is one element of the college admission process.

Works Cited

“Admissions.” University of Delaware. UD Admissions. 1 May 2008. University of Delaware. 16 July 2009. <http://admissions.udel.edu/>.

McDermott, Ann B. “Surviving Without the SAT.” Chronicle of Higher Education 10 Oct. 2008: A41+. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Online Access. New Castle County Library System, Newark, DE. 16 July 2009. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=34832884&site=ehost-live>.

Pennington, Helana. Personal interview. 16 July 2009.

“SAT.” College Board Website. College Board. 2009. 16 July 2009. <http://www.collegeboard.com/student/testing/sat/about/SATI.html>.

“Scores Remain Stable.” Education Digest 74.7 (Mar. 2009): 33-34. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Online Access. New Castle County Library System, Newark, DE. 16 July 2009. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=37332831&site=ehost-live>.

Syverson, Steven. “The role of standardized tests in college admissions: Test-Optional admissions.” New Directions for Student Services (Summer2007 2007): 55-70. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Online Access. New Castle County Library System, Newark, DE. 16 July 2009. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=25972753&site=ehost-live.

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