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SAT Optional Schools Not Always Easy Schools

Oct 13, 2007
It has been 30 years since I was a high school senior, but I had to take the SATs just as 11th and 12th graders do now. I did okay, but not good enough to get into my two first choice schools. Back then, I blamed the SATs and called them unfair, but life went on. I graduated happily in four years from the school I chose.

I am no better qualified to evaluate the validity of the SAT today than I was in high school, but I know that the test is still a fact of life. I also learned that students who performed at a high level in all college-prep subjects usually scored high on the SATs. That is a very small segment of a high school graduating class; it is the people at the very top. Most of us had difficulty with a subject or two. Sciences were my weak point in high school and I avoided them in college.

The people who did the best on these tests were well read, studied Latin and also achieved excellence in math. I took four years of math, through pre-calculus; I was doing math problems every day at school, so I was adequately prepared for SAT math. However, I was not the reader I am today, nor did I have a large vocabulary, so my verbal scores were not so hot. When I got to college, I met someone who had scored over 700 on the verbal portions of the test. "The SAT vocabulary was easy," he said, "if you knew Latin roots." He had three years of Catholic school Latin under his belt, so his education gave him an advantage. I will not call that an unfair advantage; he still had to remember all those roots for the test.

I got a better understanding of reading comprehension, an important part of the SAT, when I took my GMATs for business school. My Princeton Review tutor warned us non-scientists about the science essays on the exam; she pointed to the "caffeine passage from hell," an essay on the chemical composition of coffee, to make her point. If you had done poorly in chemistry, your eyes would glaze over that essay and you were likely to get the questions wrong. If you did well in the sciences, and understood the passage, you could get those questions right.

What is my point? The best students, the ones who do well in every subject, should have little to fear from the SATs. They should score well enough to get into an excellent school. Especially if they are well read, do math every day and bone up on their Latin, if they have the chance. That will land an applicant in all but the most selective schools, where admissions officers must split fine hairs to make a decision--and that decision is likely to be based on something other than SATs.

Fairtest.org, a non-profit education advocacy group, reported that 704 U.S. colleges and universities do not require the SAT for admissions purposes. However, the same organization reports that some schools still use the test results to evaluate applicants who do not meet their minimum criteria for class rank and grade point average; this includes flagship state universities such as the University of Texas-Austin (except engineering), the University of Iowa and the University of Oregon. In addition, some SAT-optional schools still use the SAT to place students into freshman-level courses. It's wise to get specifics from the schools of interest to you before deciding to avoid the test.

Who benefits from an SAT optional policy at a competitive four-year college? The students with good to excellent grades in college-prep subjects, who are also exceptional or passionate, about an academic subject or a creative pursuit. Such talents can be demonstrated in the application packet, recommendations, a portfolio, or interviews, but not on the SATs.

The SAT optional policy makes admissions more competitive, because it will attract larger numbers of qualified applicants. Every competitive college wants their fair share of artists, performers, activists, scientists, and even athletes in their entering class; some are willing to deemphasize standardized tests to get them. While an SAT optional policy will lessen the likelihood an applicant is rejected because of test scores, the applicant must be exceptional in some other way to compensate.

If you want to take a shot at an SAT optional school, and you have to contend with SAT scores below the school's average, take the time and attention to prepare an exceptional application that stands out from the crowd, and show that each school is your first choice.

The line of applicants to SAT optional selective schools and flagship universities will be getting longer every year. It will be harder to stand out in a larger applicant pool.
About the Author
Stuart Nachbar has been involved with education politics, policy and technology as a student, urban planner, government affairs manager, software executive, and now as author of The Sex Ed Chronicles. Visit his blog, Educated Quest
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