Getting into college is a stressful and often opaque process for high school seniors. To many students, the whole application process seems to hinge on two numbers: test scores and grade point average. There is no one rule for which number counts more because every college analyzes applications differently. However, increasing evidence suggests that GPA counts at least a bit more than SAT or ACT scores.
Why Test Scores Matter
To a lot of people, standardized tests are unfair. They boil down a student's entire intellect to a single number calculated from a single exam taken on a single day. Despite those shortcomings, however, colleges care about test scores because they allow admissions committees to compare applicants according to the same criteria, according to the Chicago Tribune (SOURCE 1). Some high schools are easier than others, and some teachers write better letters of recommendation than others. The big advantage of standardized exams is that they measure all students by the same standard, however arbitrary it might be.
Why GPA Matters
While the SAT and ACT do measure students by the same standard, they also provide an incomplete picture. Colleges and universities look carefully at applicants' academic records as a result. According to U.S. News and World Report, students with poor test scores but excellent grades in tough classes can fare well in the application process (SOURCE 2). Grades matter more to many colleges because they reveal an applicant's long-term academic ability and dedication to school work. That's especially true for students who suffer from test anxiety or just got a bad night's sleep before the exam.
Recognizing the problems associated with standardized testing, more than 800 colleges and universities have adopted "test-optional policies." These institutions will consider SAT and ACT scores in making admissions decisions, but they don't require students to submit scores at all, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (SOURCE 3). Among the test-option schools are some of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation, like Burlington, Holy Cross and Middlebury. Whether these colleges constitute a national trend away from standardized testing is open to debate, however. All of the Ivy League universities and many other competitive universities still require exam scores.
Dealing with Poor Test Scores
Although most elite universities still require standardized test scores, many of them give GPA a little more weight when deciding which students to admit. According to U.S. News and World Report, different colleges place vastly different importance on standardized tests. Students with great grades but poor test scores should target their applications at schools that emphasize GPA. New York University and Wake Forest University are two of the highest-regarded schools that favor grades over test scores, according to the Huffington Post (SOURCE 4).
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