Monday, November 30, 2009

Testing 101

Today, I got an e-mail from an applicant who wanted to know how much a student’s SAT scores affect his or her chances of being admitted. I’m sure she is not alone in wondering about testing's place in the admissions process at highly selective schools like Dartmouth. I was certainly worried about the SATs when I applied years ago. So here goes...Testing 101.

The SAT is an important factor in our admissions decisions but if you look at the breakdown of testing in our pool of admitted students, you will see that just like there is no set formula for becoming a Dartmouth student, there are no magical cut-off scores that will automatically compel the Admissions Committee to admit or deny a student. The middle 50% of our admitted students score somewhere between a 660-770 on all 3 sections of the SAT I. This means that 25% of the students we admit score higher and 25% score lower.

Testing is considered in conjunction with your transcript, the rigor of your curriculum, your GPA and your teacher recommendations. Let’s say you are an applicant with the following profile:

  • You did not do as well as you had hoped on the Critical Reading section of the SAT I.

  • You consider English your strongest subject in school.

  • You got an A+ in your junior AP English class.

  • You scored a 4 on the AP exam.

  • You asked your AP English professor to write one of your Teacher Recommendations.

  • So yes, the Admissions Committee will see your less than ideal Critical Reading score…but we also have your grades, an AP score, a teacher recommendation and, let’s not forget, an actual writing sample in the form of your personal statement to help us get an idea of how strong you are in your favorite subject area.

    Let’s face it- some students do not test well. Other students revel in exams like the SAT. What we suspect is that what type of tester you are may have something to do with your level of familiarity with the exam and whether you have had access to test prep. Performance on the SAT is highly correlated to parent income and level of education. This does not mean that parent income and level of education are categorically determinative of a student’s SAT scores, nor does it mean that the SAT is a biased exam; however, it does mean that there are limits to its value in the Admissions process.

    Together with your high school GPA, the SAT I is a good predictor of how a student MIGHT do in his or her first year in college. In other words:

    SAT I or ACT + 2 SAT Subject Tests + High school GPA
    Good Correlate to First Year College GPA

    It is important to know that there are many indicators in your application OTHER than your SAT score report and GPA that are also very good, if not better, predictors of whether you will be a successful Dartmouth student- your willingness to take intellectual risks and ability to meet challenges; your willingness to ask for help when you need it; your intellectual curiosity; your level of motivation and discipline; your social and intellectual maturity; your leadership qualities, and much more. It is also important to know that the SAT’s predictive value fades after the first year. For these reasons, we don’t put all of our eggs into the SAT basket when deciding whether to admit a student.

    On a final note, if you are the student who has scored perfect 800’s on the SAT, yes, we are impressed by that…but make sure the rest of your application is as impressive!

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