How Much Weight Does the SAT Carry in an Application?

Elements of College Applications and the SAT

Colleges consider a number of factors when deciding which students to accept, including grade point average, high school courses taken, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters, and scores on standardized tests such as the SAT. There is a great deal of variety in the level of importance given to the SAT across the college admissions process. Some schools regard the test as a very significant component of the application, while others de-emphasize standardized tests through test-optional policies. A few postsecondary institutions do not accept SAT scores at all.

Many institutions changed their policies regarding standardized tests, such as the SAT, beginning mid-2020 with the onset of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic. According to the College Board, more than one million SAT registrations were cancelled between 2020 and 2021 due to pandemic-related disruptions, including the mandated closures of schools and the closings and reduced capacities of testing centers. The College Board paused SAT testing during March, May, and June of 2020 and as a result, many colleges and universities stopped requiring standardized test scores as part of a student's application.

The University of California, a leader in higher education with more than 280,000 students spread across its 10-campus system, has been considering and reconsidering the place of the SAT in college admissions for the past twenty years. In April 2020, the Academic Senate voted 51-0 to reinstate requiring standardized test scores once the pandemic subsided. Later that same spring, however, the University of California's governing board unanimously overruled the faculty and made standardized test scores an optional part of submitting an application for admission.

For those students planning on attending college in the fall of 2023, more than 1,750 four-year universities will continue making standardized test scores an optional part of their application, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, commonly known as FairTest. An additional 85 schools will go even farther than being test-optional and will be test-blind, meaning that a student's standardized test score will not be considered even if it is submitted as part of their application. Included among these schools are the University of California system, as well as the California State University system, boasting more than 475,000 students across 23 campuses.

The eight universities that make up the Ivy League (Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University) have committed to remaining test-optional through the high school class of 2024. Johns Hopkins University has pledged to be test-optional through the 2025-2026 application year, while Stanford University announced that they would remain test-optional through the 2023-2024 application cycle. It is important for students to familiarize themselves with the standardized test policies at the colleges and universities they plan on applying to, and it is equally important to understand that simply because a university is test-optional with regards to the SAT does not mean the test might not factor into an admission decision.

While those opposed to standardized testing have heralded a temporary pause in the required submission of SAT scores, other educators and leaders in education have called just as strongly for a return to standardized testing requirements as part of the college application process. Arguments have been made that, by removing objective benchmarks (such as SAT scores) from the college application process, the entire process favors students from wealthy families more than ever. When test scores are not available for consideration, greater emphasis is placed on holistic credentials such as extracurricular activities, letters of recommendations, and volunteering, areas where students from less wealthy families may struggle due to lack of available options or the need to spend their time elsewhere, such as at a part-time job to assist with family finances.

It remains to be seen if standardized testing will regain a place of prominence in the college application process, but in the meantime, there is certainly no harm in submitting SAT scores to a test-optional college, as more information on this particular aspect of a student's academic performance may be useful in helping admission committees finalize their acceptance decisions.

Institutional Consideration of the SAT

A general trend can be shown in which the importance of SAT scores to college applications is correlated to the degree of selectivity of a given institution. Schools with lower acceptance rates tend to have higher regard for an applicant's SAT performance, while institutions that accept a larger percentage of their applicants usually place a lesser amount of emphasis on standardized test scores. Although some elite universities (such as Harvard) state that they do not have minimum SAT requirements, independent analysis has shown a strong link between elite college acceptance and upper-percentile SAT performance. Many schools are reluctant to give specific information about how they weigh SAT scores, most likely due to popular criticism of standardized testing. The institutions that do disclose this data often have admissions criteria that reduce the importance of the SAT. The University of Georgia, for instance, says that it counts high school courses and grades two to three times as much as test scores.

Multiple SAT Attempts, Admissions, and SAT-Based Scholarships

There is also institutional variation in terms of how many test attempts count toward admissions standards. Some colleges evaluate only the highest of an applicant's SAT scores, but others review a prospective student's entire testing history (Yale University and Georgetown University are examples of the latter, requiring applicants to submit all SAT scores). Furthermore, SAT standards can be applied more rigorously for scholarships than for admissions. A given SAT score may be sufficient for acceptance but not high enough for merit-based financial aid. The best course of action for college-bound students is to secure the highest possible SAT scores on initial test attempts, and to acquire as much information about the SAT's role in the admissions process as their chosen schools are willing to give.

Typical SAT Scores at Selective Private Universities

College applicants can learn much of what they need to know about admissions standards, including those that pertain to SAT scores, by reviewing profiles of recent entering classes. Exact scores needed for acceptance are extremely difficult to calculate (if they even exist at all), but test-takers can determine how their SAT scores measure up to students at their preferred institutions with relative ease.

Based on the most recently available data, the following are 2021 SAT score ranges for some of the most prestigious universities in the United States, with the first score representing the 25th percentile and the second score representing the 75th percentile:

  • Brown University: 1480-1560

  • Columbia University: 1510-1560

  • Cornell University: 1450-1540

  • Dartmouth College: 1440-1560

  • Harvard University: 1460-1580

  • Princeton University: 1450-1570

  • University of Pennsylvania: 1490-1560

  • Yale University: 1460-1580

The average middle 50% of SAT scores across the Ivy League universities fell in the range of 1468-1564. It is important to note that these scores were submitted when all members of the Ivy League were test-optional, suggesting that high SAT scores may still play a role in admissions decisions.

Typical SAT Scores at Selective Public Universities

Among public colleges, some of the highest average SAT scores can be found at Georgia Tech, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Virginia.

Georgia Tech reported an average 2022 composite or total SAT score of 1465. The average Math section score was 750, and the average Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section score was 715. Georgia Tech is considered highly selective, with an 18% acceptance rate.

The University of California at Berkeley, commonly referred to as “UC Berkeley” reported an average 2022 composite or total SAT score of 1415. The average Math section score was 725, and the average Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section score was 690. UC Berkeley is considered incredibly selective, with an 11% acceptance rate.

The University of Virginia reported an average 2022 SAT composite or total SAT score of 1430. The university reported the middle 50% range for SAT scores, with Math section scores falling in the range of 710-790 and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section scores falling in the range of 690-750. The University of Virginia is considered highly selective, with an acceptance rate of 21%.

While every public college and university is different, it is clear that high SAT scores are very desirable, and the more selective a given school is, the higher average SAT scores tend to be. Students are encouraged to do their own research and understand the requirements and expectations of the universities they plan on applying to in order to be as prepared as possible and to have a good understanding of the SAT score they will need to increase their chances of being given an offer of admission.

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