The Big 3 of College Admissions, Part 2 of 3

Here in the second of our three-part series on the most important components of the college admissions formula, let’s address the factor that seems to generate the most frustration and anxiety – the college admissions exams. That’s right, we’re talking about the SAT and ACT. Along with high school grades (which you can read about here if you missed part 1), test scores are often a primary factor in the admissions formula and can be an early indicator of whether or not a student will be competitive for a particular college or university.

Like many of you, I personally believe test scores are not the most effective measure of a student’s ability and, therefore, should not be so important in the admissions process; but unfortunately they simply are. Because high schools around the nation vary so widely in their grading practices, course options, and rigor of curriculum, it is virtually impossible to compare students from different schools with any amount of equity – meaning an A average at one school may be very different from an A average at another school. The best, or maybe the easiest, solution for the colleges is for all those students to take the same exams so they can be compared equally. Until someone creates a better system, the ACT and SAT are the tools for the job, and every aspiring college student will have to suffer through them.

Not many years ago, most states or regions of the nation had a favorite exam. The SAT was widely used on the East and West Coasts and Texas, while the ACT was favored across the remainder of the US. Within the past decade, however, that trend has changed so that every college or university in the US will accept either exam. This is great news for students because they can find the test on which they perform best and use only those scores for admission. Students can begin taking the exams at any age or grade level and retest up to 12 times, as long as the scores are submitted before the respective application deadlines during senior year.

We recommend that most students take at least 1 ACT and 1 SAT by the winter of junior year, although many families will begin much earlier if their child is motivated to try. After we compare the scores of those first two exams, we can often identify which test is a better fit and develop a plan for test preparation and retesting, with the goal of completing all tests by the summer before senior year. This gives us an accurate picture of which colleges are an appropriate fit for the student, and it relieves a significant burden if testing is completed before the applications start in the fall.

One of the most difficult questions to answer about test scores is, “Are my scores good enough?” It is difficult because the answer really depends on which college or university a student is pursuing and whether we mean good enough to get admitted or good enough to get scholarships. All GCS high school students have access to Naviance Family Connection, which is an excellent tool for researching colleges across the US and learning about their average test scores for incoming freshmen. Besides that, I recommend using individual college websites along with or another college research site to determine what scores are necessary for any particular school. We have also noticed an increase in recent years of colleges that have chosen to be “test optional,” meaning ACT and SAT scores are not required for admission. Try an online search for test optional schools if you are concerned about low scores.

Test preparation is a topic that would require a separate, lengthy article, so please contact the guidance office if you would like to discuss it. We will describe the resources and strategies available at school, and we can share a list of test preparation courses and providers that other GCS families have used. The options are plentiful, with a wide range of costs, time commitments, and delivery methods to accommodate the needs of each student. The good news here is that all students can improve their scores with coaching and practice, so it usually pays off, either in more admission offers or increased scholarship offers, to invest the time needed to raise those scores.

If you’d like to learn more about the content, format, and scheduling of the exams, as well as access free practice questions and sample tests, visit the following sites:

As you can see, scores on the college admissions exams are clearly some of the most influential factors in an admission decision, but at the same time, they only measure a small portion of a student’s ability. It really takes the combination of test scores and grades to complete the picture of a student’s academic potential, which is why colleges need to see both. Of course, success in college involves so much more than academic ability, which is why the other most important component of the application has nothing to do with academics. We’ll unpack that in part 3.

For your family and God’s glory,

Joshua Webb
Director of College Guidance
Grace Community School