Timothy Peck 5 min read SAT Info and Tips

Do SAT Scores Correlate to IQ?

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The SAT and IQ test measure different things, and are difficult to compare. The most notable difficulty in comparing the SAT to an IQ test is that you can improve your SAT score over time; research has shown that most students get a higher score the second time taking the exam. 

 

Conversely, your IQ (intelligence quotient) is a given and should remain constant no matter how many IQ tests you take. According to Mensa, a society comprised of people with IQs in the top 2%, “Intelligence is a personality trait influenced by both genetic and environmental influences… Our cognitive abilities develop up to the age of 17-20 and our level of intelligence varies little after that.”

 

Wondering why else the SAT and IQ test can’t really be compared, and why people want to correlate SAT to IQ in the first place? Read on to learn more.

 

Why SAT to IQ Doesn’t Translate 

 

An example of the difficulty of comparing an SAT score to IQ is to look at two students who score 1500 on the SAT. The first student walked into the test without any preparation, took the test, and scored 1500. The other student scored 1500 after scoring 1200 on a prior SAT and spending many hours prepping for the second exam. 

 

It’s likely that many people will argue that the student who scored 1500 with no prep whatsoever possesses a higher IQ than the student who worked to earn an equally high score; however, in the eyes of the College Board (and the colleges the students apply to), there is no difference. 

 

Why You Can’t Correlate SAT to IQ 

 

The answer to why you can’t calculate your IQ from your SAT score is simple: the SAT is designed to test the facts, concepts, and skills you have acquired over your academic career. To test this, the SAT will present problems and situations that require you to rely on the information already in your possession. Alternately, IQ tests evaluate your ability to formulate answers with only the information provided to you. More simply, an IQ test examines not what you’ve learned, but your capacity for learning. 

 

SAT Favors Those from Wealthier Backgrounds

 

Another factor that demonstrates the trouble of converting an SAT score to IQ is that the SAT has a long history of favoring test takers from wealthy backgrounds. Mensa members are quick to point out that their society has members from more than 100 countries around the world and from all walks of life and educational levels.

 

An article published in the Wall Street Journal using calculations from the National Center for Fair & Open Testing found that in 2014, on average, students in each income bracket outscored students in the income bracket below on every section of the test. Students in the highest income bracket scored 400 points higher than their peers in the lowest income bracket. 

 

The problem with students from higher socioeconomic strata outscoring those from less-advantaged backgrounds was so overt that the College Board sought to rectify the problem by issuing an adversity score, a single metric accounting for a student’s neighborhood wealth, access to teachers, test preparation, and other factors impacting success. Accounting for a student’s background with a single number proved controversial, and the adversity score was quickly abandoned for Landscape, a series of data points that the College Board believes affects education outcomes.

 

Why SAT Scores and IQ Are Commonly Linked

 

There’s a reason why it’s common for people to make an SAT-to-IQ correlation: the SAT has its roots as an IQ test. The first mass-administered IQ test called the “Army Alpha” was used to test recruits during World War I. Following the war, Carl Bingham (an assistant in administering the Army Alpha) took the test with him to Princeton and began adapting it for use in college admissions. 

 

The use of the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) was pushed to prominence when Harvard began to administer the test as a way to evaluate students coming from outside the pipeline of Eastern boarding schools for scholarships. James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard, liked the test because he believed it measured pure intelligence, regardless of a student’s prior education (hence the word “aptitude” in the name, which means “the natural ability to do something”). In the 1930s, Henry Chauncy, the assistant dean of Harvard, convinced the member schools of the College Board—a group founded by the presidents of the top 12 US universities in 1900 to administer admissions tests—to accept the SAT as the uniform exam for scholarship applicants. 

 

In 1942, war once again played a role in the adoption of the SAT, as all pre-existing College Board tests were abolished and the SAT was established as the standard exam for all college applicants. In 1944 the SAT was administered to more than 300,000 people across the US—under contract from the Army and Navy. Jumping ahead, a record 2.2 million students took the SAT in 2019. 

 

An interesting fact about the link between SAT to IQ is that it helped spur the creation of the ACT. Everett Franklin Lindquist, a Professor of Education at the University of Iowa, perceived the SAT was more interested in revealing what a student was capable of learning, rather than what they had learned, and developed the ACT to remedy the perceived flaws of the SAT. 

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How to Improve Your SAT Score

 

The upside of the independence of SAT scores from IQ is that an SAT score is not a sign of intelligence or ability, and that it’s possible to improve your SAT score. 

 

Khan Academy: A great place to start when looking to boost your SAT score is Khan Academy, which partnered with the College Board to offer free, personalized SAT prep. A study of test takers in 2017 showed that 20 hours of practice on Khan Academy led to an increase of 115 points on the SAT. A little over 6% of test takers saw an increase of 200 points or more. 

 

SAT Strategy: One of the best ways to increase your SAT score is to have a strategy going into the test. Knowing the directions in advance can save critical time during the exam; understanding how to pace yourself, and familiarizing yourself with the types of questions asked will also go a long way toward moving the needle on your SAT score. 

 

Practice Makes Perfect: The SAT is almost as much a measure of test-taking strategy as it is knowledge. Taking practice tests, doing practice questions, and reviewing your answers is the best practice for the SAT. Start by taking an untimed practice test and identifying areas you need to improve on. After strengthening those areas, you can then graduate to simulating the conditions you’ll encounter on test day. If you’re looking for SAT study resources, check out our post: Links to Every SAT Practice Test + Other Free Resources.

 

What to do If You Can’t Raise Your SAT Score

 

Many schools are moving away from using standardized tests such as the SAT in admissions. US News reports that over 1,000 schools nationwide now have test-optional admissions. These schools include big-name schools like Ohio Wesleyan University, Pitzer College, James Madison University, the University of Denver, and the University of Chicago. Test-optional schools allow students who struggle with standardized exams to highlight their transcript, extracurricular activities, letters of recommendation, and show how they’ve grown over the course of their academic careers. 

 

Low SAT Score & Students With Exceptional Circumstances

 

A student’s aspirations of attending an elite school are not ended by a low SAT score, though it will be more of an uphill battle. Students who have other major strengths, such as a high GPA or remarkable extracurricular activities activities, may be able to make up a low SAT score though. Admissions officers  also make exceptions for students who faced significant challenges, such as those from underrepresented minority groups or low-income families, and those who have overcome a serious illness. 

 

In the end, colleges are less interested in how an SAT score correlates to IQ, and more interested in how an SAT score equates to success in school. 

 

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Timothy Peck
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
A graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in English, Tim Peck currently lives in Concord, New Hampshire, where he balances a freelance writing career with the needs of his two Australian Shepherds to play outside.