by Will Geiger, on Feb 28, 2019 12:00:00 PM
I opened up Jack’s file and started reading his application in the order that I read every application.
First, I scrolled to the transcript and noticed a sea of “A” grades and a single B+ in sophomore Studio Art. Next, I opened up Jack’s Common Application and looked for his test scores. They were a good 200 points below our average test scores. Despite his low test scores, Jack’s strong track record of high grades in challenging classes and his leadership of a big food drive at his school made me confident he would be a strong student and positive member of our school community. Plus, I had interviewed him and was very impressed with the way he talked about his sense of responsibility for his younger siblings.
I met Jack during my first year working as a college admissions counselor at Kenyon College. As I read hundreds of applications, I saw all the ways that college admissions is a messy and imprecise process. And, frankly, it’s often unfair. I met many, many qualified candidates, more than any college could admit. To complicate matters, students came from such different academic backgrounds--different high schools, different academic classes, different grading scales, and different opportunities. Students’ essays, recommendations, and activities are widely variable and often difficult to interpret out of context. In a situation where we could admit only 1 out of 4 applicants, we were viewing many different individuals, and while there were guidelines, there was not one common metric to assess them.
In this very chaotic process, testing offered us one standard datapoint, a consistent benchmark to compare applicants. That type of consistency had been the goal of standardized tests when they were created in the mid-twentieth century. First the SAT, and then the ACT, were designed to democratize admissions and allow all candidates--regardless of their background or high school--to show their potential to colleges. Prior to standardized testing, each college had its own admissions test, and elite private schools served as the primary pipelines to the most selective colleges and universities. Testing allowed public school students from around the country the opportunity to enter the admissions process with a more level playing field.
Unfortunately, over the past 100 years, standardized tests have turned into an obsession for many students, parents, and high schools. Students often fixate on attaining a specific score, so they can get into one college or another, making not only testing but the whole admissions process very stressful.
Colleges also chase high test scores. For colleges, the average test scores of admitted students offer a way to signal the academic strength of their student body relative to other colleges. This is why colleges brag about how many students have a perfect score on the SAT or ACT and why they highlight the average test scores of their admitted students in marketing materials. All of this focus on numbers tends to stress students out even more!
While test scores are a useful metric, and you should practice for them and take them once or twice, they are just part of your story. They are rarely the most important factor in an admission decision. And whatever your test scores, it’s the other parts of your application--your classes, your activities, your essays--that will distinguish you from thousands of other students with similar test scores.
At the hyper selective colleges and universities (schools with acceptances rates of 10% or less), test scores tend to be more important because these schools receive applications from so many qualified students. In that context, testing may be one of the first metrics used to differentiate candidates. At the vast majority of other schools, testing is going to be one out of many data points. In the case of the 1,000+ test-optional or test flexible schools, testing may not matter at all.
In Jack’s case, we did admit him because he was such a strong student and someone we thought would make an important contribution to our community, based on his activities and attitude in high school! Sure, his test scores were a bit low, but they were high enough that we knew he’d do fine academically, and other factors were overwhelmingly in his favor, so we moved him into the admit pile. Imagine you are Jack: view your test scores in relation to all the other parts of your story, and keep a balanced perspective through the process.