How Your SAT and ACT Scores Affect College Admissions

Last updated: Jan 17, 2023

Unless you are applying for admission to a community college, a flexible or test-optional school, an art school, or a trade or technical school, SAT and ACT scores probably will affect your chances of being admitted to college. Calculating how your SAT and ACT scores affect college admissions depends on the college in the equation.

Student studying for standardized test

Baseline Facts About Testing and Admissions

There are arguments for and against using standardized test scores to screen college applicants. We can’t settle the argument, but we can state some indisputable facts:

  • High standardized test scores can’t hurt you, but low scores often can.
  • Stellar standardized test scores can take the sting out of a low grade-point average if there was a slide in academic performance that can be linked to extenuating circumstances.
  • If you’re applying to a four-year school, you likely will need the SAT or ACT.
  • Athletes hoping to compete in NCAA Division I sports must have acceptable SAT or ACT scores.
  • Many schools of the arts, Juilliard among them, don’t require SAT or ACT scores.

The SAT debuted in 1926, and the ACT was developed in 1959. Included in the history of standardized testing is the argument over its use in college admissions. The argument continues. Here are three facts that hint at outcomes in the argument:

  • Large schools tend to rely more heavily on scores because large applicant pools make heavily individualized screening difficult.
  • The push to end test-based screening has yielded flexible and test-optional schools.
  • As more schools join the ranks of test-optional colleges, increased diversity often is cited as a driving force.

Why Good Test Results Still Matter – a Lot

Consider this headline from an article in The Atlantic magazine in May 2018: “The Two Most Important College-Admissions Criteria Now Mean Less.” The “Two” are standardized test scores and GPAs. The article concedes that overall, the “Two” remain top factors in deciding admissions. Here’s the bottom-line paragraph from the story:

“Eighty percent of American colleges accept more than half of their applicants, but at the country’s most selective schools, there is something of a merit crisis: As test scores and GPAs hold less sway, admissions offices are searching for other, inevitably more subjective metrics.”

Here are the most relevant parts of the article’s takeaway for those who are or soon will be filling out college applications:

  • The large public colleges that are the safety schools on many college applicants’ target lists also are the schools with large enrollments that force a reliance on standardized test scores.
  • The most selective schools’ admissions processes are evolving toward less reliance on test scores and grades, but that evolution is in its infancy. Test scores remain a significant factor at most of these schools.

In short, standardized tests might be on their way out (or not), but they are top-tier admissions metrics now, along with high school transcripts and extracurricular activities. Admissions officers know that grading practices vary by school and that extracurricular opportunities vary, too. Standardized tests are, as the name indicates, standardized.

Students listening to a lecture from a college professor

Arguments for Acing the SAT or ACT and Taking Other Standardized Tests

For the most part, standardized test results remain at the top of the list of things that can put people in the colors of their dream school. But, beyond “getting in,” there are other important benefits to consider. U.S. News & World Report lists three:

College Credits

As with accomplishments in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs, there are college credits to be had for good standardized test results. Two examples of tests that can translate to credit hours are the College-Level Examination Program and the Principles of Marketing exam.

Standardized test scores also guide the academic advisors who help students choose classes. Good scores point to more rigorous classes and away from remedial studies, which can accelerate your academic progress.

Financial Assistance

The National Merit Scholarship Program isn’t the only awards program that relies on standardized test scores to help identify recipients. Many schools use test results in the financial aid disbursement process.

College Prep

The skills and knowledge you master in the standardized testing process foreshadow the tests you will face in college and help prepare you for them.

Students taking a test

Here’s Why You Need an SAT-ACT Strategy and How We Can Help

You can argue against the need for standardized testing, but it’s illogical to argue against having a strategy for standardized testing. Consider that most or all of the colleges you consider are going to require standardized test results in their application process.

The college admissions process favors those who give themselves an edge, be it through extracurricular activities or fantastic test results. Both of these can be deciding factors when an admissions office is facing a field of college candidates with comparably high GPAs.

Course selection throughout high school also is part of a good strategy, and being prepared for the standardized tests is how you close the deal. That means knowing what to expect on SAT day.

Get to know the desired test score ranges of your target schools and prepare yourself to exceed them. One way to hit your target scores is the PSAT, and it’s not the only test prep option.

USF’s Office of Corporate Training and Professional Education offers a test preparation program that includes SAT and ACT readiness. For additional information on that and other CTPE services, contact us by mail or phone.


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