by Mark Greenstein. Founder and Lead Instructor of Ivy Bound

Many competitive colleges now make one ACT or SAT score, taken on a single day, nearly equal in weight to a GPA earned over 3+ years. Fair or not, that is the system of the modern admissions process. At least four elements gird this overweighting of the ACT / SAT.

1) The SAT and ACT are decent tests of skills and knowledge.

1A) The SAT and ACT are supposedly great predictors of achievement during one’s college years. (we have not found a study proving such and are quite skeptical, but colleges continue to spout that line.)

2) Other measures, like GPA, moral character, and school competitiveness, are difficult to compare.

3) Colleges need a standard. For better or worse, the ACT and SAT are nationwide standards that let colleges see students on the same “playing field”. GPAs are not standard. GPAs can top out at 4.0, 4.5, 5.0, 6.0, 100. Even if adjusted to a “4.0 scale” there is an element of course difficulty that a GPA doesn’t measure. GPA also cannot help college admissions committees when the caliber of competitor students varies. Students variously attend: prep school, public school, foreign school, and home school; these different experiences cannot be equated by GPA.

4) Colleges are themselves are assessed by average SAT and ACT scores of incoming students. The most prominent college ranking survey, US News, weights highly SAT / ACT scores of incoming freshmen. Since most colleges desire to have high rankings on the US News survey, they demand that admissions committees make ACT/SAT scores a major factor.

For these reasons, the SAT is likely to remain a huge criterion for college admissions. The US News survey COULD de-emphasize SAT scores; another survey COULD replace the prominence of US News’, but even then the other factors will remain. So SAT prep for college-bound students is almost a necessity; how much prep depends upon the student’s incoming abilities, ability to absorb, and college goals.

The Good News
The SAT and ACT are coachable. Almost everyone improves with training. The question is how much. The SAT is not a measure of fixed knowledge, skills, or “intelligence”. Ask students who have raised their scores 200+ points after three months’ preparation. The ACT is not a measure of fixed knowledge, skills, or “intelligence” either. Ask students who have raised their ACT scores 4 points after four months’ preparation. When colleges overweight the ACT and SAT, they give an opportunity to high school students who lack strong grades, or are at less-highly regarded schools. In a way, the term “overweight” may be unfair; the collective wisdom of 300+ competitive colleges probably means the ACT and SAT are FAIRLY weighted. It just seems from afar like 1 test vs 3 years of GPA looks imbalanced.

The Bad News
Mastering the ACT is not particularly fun. It requires building math, reading, and science reasoning skills, learning grammar and applying it to dense passages. And it requires practice writing a 30 minute essay that will be evaluated in under 90 second (yes, the average is reportedly under 60 seconds) by readers looking for clarity, good grammar, good vocabulary, and persuasiveness.

Mastering the SAT is not particularly fun either. SAT Math is difficult because it asks familiar concepts in unfamiliar ways. SAT Reading is difficult because it asks vocabulary that is often unfamiliar, and demands reading skills many students have never used. SAT Writing is difficult because it’s a fast-paced essay deliberately seeking a student to give an opinion and back it up. Few students do this in their High School work.

A Good Mindset
We like students to know that part of the responsibility of the college-bound high school student is to succeed on the ACT or SAT. We arm parents with these lines to the reluctant teen:

“students who attend better colleges have more FUN”. The top colleges offer more clubs and activities outside the classroom. They tend to attract more interesting kids, from far-away places.”

“girls don’t go to your parties if you attend a commuter school; they flock to parties at reputable colleges” (girls generally figure out earlier than boys that it’s solid to hang out with smart people).

“if you don’t take the SAT or ACT seriously, do not expect us to pay for anything other than community college”

“ACT / SAT prep is an easier chore than cleaning the floors or mowing the lawn. And if you don’t put real effort into the ACT or SAT, cleaning floors and mowing lawns may be what you do for a living”.

Ivy Bound offers ACT and SAT Prep classes throughout the Northeast. Ivy Bound instructors are primarily college and grad students who have all scored among the top 1% on the SAT or ACT, and have a zeal for teaching. Ivy Bound is often invited to hold classes in schools that have been underserved by some of the larger test prep organizations.