If you are applying to college, or plan on applying to college sometime in the next few years, you’re probably asking yourself the following question: how important is the SAT?
The simple (and not entirely satisfying) answer is: it depends. Let me give you three reasons why.
1. Not every college requires the SAT.
There is a lot to discuss when it comes to “test optional” colleges.
For now, just keep in mind as you think about the SAT that not every school asks for the reasoning test (the SAT I) anymore. Some colleges that still require the reasoning test don’t require the writing portion. Don’t forget about SAT subject tests, which are required by some colleges, but not all. As you probably know, most colleges nowadays will accept the ACT in lieu of the SAT.
You should be thinking about the SAT and subject tests early on regardless of where you want to apply. You should plan on taking three to five subject tests regardless. Start in ninth grade, and take any subject tests you can after taking the corresponding class in school (take the subject test in U.S. History after you take… U.S. History). As a ninth grader, you probably don’t know where you want to go to college yet. Leave your options open, and take subject tests.
All this to say: as you’re putting together your college list, don’t worry too much about whether your favorite colleges require the SAT, want you to do the writing portion of the SAT, or how many SAT subject tests they require you to take. Figure out where you think you’d be happy—academically, extracurricularly, and socially—and then head to each of your schools’ websites for test info.
2. Good SAT scores are more impressive for some students than for others.
That doesn’t seem fair, you might say. It is, and it isn’t. Let me explain.
If your Common App shows that you live on Beverly Park Circle, that both of your parents went to top colleges, that they have high-paying jobs, and that you go to a fancy private school, admissions officers will expect you to have high SAT scores. They know as well as you do that the SAT is a coachable test, and will assume that given your situation, you have had access to excellent private tutors. They will assume that your swanky high school did a good job preparing you for all things college application-related.
Now let’s say you’re not from an expensive neighborhood, you attend a public school that happens to have limited resources in terms of tutoring and college counseling, and neither of your parents attended college. In this scenario, your high SAT scores will be truly impressive to an admissions committee. Clearly, you’ve accomplished a great deal despite not having had access to the advantages that come with rich, college-educated parents, a posh high school, and so on.
If you’ve got a lot of resources available to you, be grateful for them, and make the most of them. If you don’t, do what you can, and know that college admissions folks will take your situation into account, and be (at least a little) more forgiving.
3. The SAT is just one part of the application.
Your SAT scores are important. They’re probably more important than most admissions offices will admit. But be realistic about how much time and money you devote to preparing for them.
The Math section of the SAT is far more basic than the math you’ve covered in high school. Buy a prep guide, and learn what’s going to be on the test.
The best way to prepare for the Critical Reading (CR) portion of the SAT is by reading a lot all throughout high school (and earlier!). Read some great books. What you learn about human life from literature will be infinitely more rewarding than your improved CR score.
Use that prep guide to familiarize yourself with the format of the test. Read about question difficulty and order. Figure out how many tough questions you can afford to skip and still reach your target score. Tutoring will improve your score, especially if you’re struggling to motivate yourself to study on your own.
But, don’t get obsessed. Ask yourself if your time might not be better spent on something else, such as pursuing your extracurricular interests. If you’re a musician, maybe devote some (not all, but some) of your SAT prep time to organizing a concert for charity instead. If you’ve got a job, maybe put in some extra hours and see if you can secure some more responsibility. Not only are these things equivalent to a few extra points on the SAT as far as colleges are concerned, but they are also much better for your development as an individual, and for those around you.
Don’t forget about the SAT, but try to think bigger.