We hear from parents and high school students every day who are more concerned than ever about standardized test scores, especially since this year’s newly formatted SAT.
The big question is how much weight ACT/SAT scores actually hold when it comes to the college admissions process. And more often than not, we find that people tend to have an exaggerated idea of how important these scores are. Here’s a scenario and student profile based on a real-life college applicant that embodies this common, problematic misconception.
Meet Katie, a senior who will graduate in 2016 from a high school in Atlanta, GA. She’s an exceptional student with great grades and a very high SAT score. Based on this, she was pretty darn confident that she would get into the school of her dreams — Georgia Tech. However, after receiving a rejection letter from not only GTech, but EVERYWHERE else besides her safety schools, she was sure that there must have been some sort of mistake.
Katie and her parents couldn’t figure out what went wrong. Was there a fluke in the admissions process, or was there a good reason why her high GPA and competitive SAT score hadn’t gotten her into any of the top schools she was aiming for?
Heads spinning, Katie and her family came to us for advice. Here’s what we told them.
Great SAT Scores Are No Match For Creative Essays And Impressive Extracurriculars
When we started to review her profile, we discovered that Katie did indeed have a very solid SAT score (2160), as well as a great GPA (3.9). Initially, we too were surprised by the fact that she didn’t get into Georgia Tech or UC Davis. But after digging a little deeper, it didn’t take too long to notice that the rest of her application was a little bland.
Katie is a great example of how the SAT has become LESS important in college admissions. While she was very focused, obsessed even, with getting a competitive score, she didn’t focus enough of her attention on extracurricular activities and her development outside of the classroom. In fact, she had virtually no extracurricular activities to speak of apart from National Honors Society and a one year stint with the computer programming club at her high school junior year.
Moreover, Katie wasn’t convinced that application essays really mattered. “I mean, do they really have time to read those?” She asked. Katie even admitted that she didn’t really take the time to research the schools she was applying to and was often scrambling at the last minute to finalize drafts before submitting.
So, What Could Katie Have Done Differently?
First of all, Katie is not alone. There are plenty of kids with a great deal of potential who simply don’t know what they need to do to to make their college apps stand out. We all know grades and test scores are important, and as a general rule of thumb, students should try do as well as they can on the SAT or ACT. That should be pretty obvious.
But it’s equally important for high school students to focus on balancing their schedules and developing interests outside of the classroom. The lack of that development and a misguided view of the importance of essay writing are two of the biggest blockers we see when it comes to students with tremendous potential who end up falling short. In Katie’s case, these factors made all the difference between an acceptance letter and a rejection letter from her dream school. Things could have been different though.
Katie could have joined the computer programming club in ninth grade (as opposed to joining during her junior year). During that time, it’s possible that she would have rose through the ranks to hold a leadership position. Maybe she would have even become president of the club. Not only does that sound pretty impressive in itself, but imagine what an amazing story that could be in an essay!
Better yet, let’s say Katie joined the club her freshman year, realized it wasn’t really her thing and then started her OWN club about something she really cared about. Or what if she spent the summer between junior and senior year working at a part-time job to save money for her college education? What if she consistently volunteered at a local organization in an effort to give back? Any of the above would have helped her chances because they show character, personal development, the desire to pursue passions, skills, experiences, etc. You get the picture.
It’s not that Katie needed to do ALL of those things. In fact, doing all of those things probably would have spread her way to thin. We always recommend that students get deeply involved in just a couple extracurriculars, ones that they are passionate about and really enjoy, rather than dabbling in too many. The college admissions committee can spot someone who is simply padding their resume from miles away.
Katie also should not have underestimated the influencing power of an insightful admissions essay. To an extent, the essay is really the only chance students get on a college application to showcase their personalities. And with SO many applicants applying to top schools with outstanding grades and test scores, it’s important to take this opportunity to really stand out with a unique perspective.
In the end that’s what can really help make a student’s application memorable (here’s an awesome tool to help with that if you’re struggling!).
The Moral Of This Story Is…
The lesson here is that test scores are important, but they are not the end-all-be-all. Failing to build a well-rounded student profile throughout high school is a classic mistake, especially in recent years when college admissions committees have started focusing less and less on numbers. With universities like Minerva and organizations like the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success developing ways to evaluate students more holistically, SAT/ACT scores and grades may become even less important.
After all, there are plenty of bright, talented students who are not good test takers. And scores say nothing about what a student is passionate about or whether or not they will be contributing members of the community on campus and after graduation. Demonstrated commitment to extracurricular activities and application essays, on the other hand, do shed some light on what students are interested in and who they are and want to become. So if you’re a student, start early, immerse yourself in your passions, get your hands dirty in something, and try to make an impact. And, if you’re reading this as a parent, encourage your student to do so!