We are smack in the middle of the college application season, and December marks the last chance this year’s seniors have to raise their SAT scores. It is the time of year when parents say to themselves, “Why is it that my child works hard, has great grades, and can’t get into X college because of their low SAT scores?” In fact, over the past 25 years, a billion dollar test prep industry has sprung up to assist students in raising SAT scores so they may gain admission to the most competitive colleges. So, why does it seem that SAT scores are much lower than grades might predict?
Probably the biggest difference lies in the fact that grades may be the same, but they may mean two very different things. Has one student taken the most difficult courses at a school while the other student has sprinkled in a few difficult courses amidst a transcript of average coursework? Even when taking courses at the same level, there can be easier and more difficult teachers. My daughter once chose to take a history class because she knew that the teacher was an easy grader. She got the good grade, but did she practice the skills students were required to demonstrate in the other, more difficult section? Her GPA benefited, but did it benefit her SAT performance?
There is a reason that competitive colleges want applicants to have taken the highest level of coursework in which they can be successful. It cannot be said enough that the more a student reads and writes, the better their standardized test scores. This is not a late in the game cure-all so for parents of younger students: the more you can get your child reading, the better their SAT scores will be. Students that avoid reading in class by substituting movies, using Cliff’s Notes, or paying close attention to teacher discussion of reading assignments have learned that they can “game” the system, getting a good grade on a multiple choice test, but not actually doing the reading. So much of the SAT is verbally based, and the ability to read long passages about a topic that may not be considered interesting is an important skill.
Do not let your child ever hear you say that he or she is a bad test taker. Studies have shown that students who think they are bad test takers are significantly more prone to test anxiety. Anxiety promotes indecisiveness even when the correct answer is known; and, in a timed test environment like the SAT, this leads to rushed completion of questions, or worse, questions left unanswered. As a parent, do everything you can to promote calm confidence and make sure that the morning of the test is organized and not rushed.
Remember that strong performance in a rigorous curriculum is the most important part of a college application. In a recent conversation I had with a college admissions counselor at a highly competitive school, I was told that 80% of the applicants they deny are denied in the transcript review stage. The SAT score is unquestionably important, but colleges would much rather have a student with demonstrated success in coursework and slightly lower SAT scores than a less than stellar academic record and relatively high SAT scores. Best of luck; and, as a parent, I am glad to be out of the college admissions game!