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How Good is the SAT/ACT at Predicting College Success?
As you probably know by now, standardized test scores are a standard part of the college application process. Most schools will require you to submit your scores from the SAT or ACT in order to apply, and a high score is a necessity for admission to the best colleges. A whole industry of services like CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program exists to help college applicants prepare for these important exams.
For years, however, educators, admissions professionals, and students like yourself have been asking what SAT and ACT scores really mean. What does a standardized test actually measure, especially when it’s so different from the experience of learning in a classroom setting? What does a student’s test score as far as their chances of succeeding in college later on?
The ACT and SAT won’t ask you to demonstrate knowledge of specific highly advanced content, and they don’t measure how “smart” you are. However, studies show that these tests have some predictive ability when it comes to anticipating how well you’ll do in college, albeit within limits. In this post, we’ll go over the data that’s available, explain what this data may mean, and suggest how you can use this interpretation to better manage your college prospects.
Defining the Parameters: What Does “College Success” Mean?
In order to answer the question of whether your SAT and ACT scores can predict whether you’ll succeed in college, we first need to ask the question of what it means to succeed in college, and what quantitative factors we can use to measure that success.
The quality of your college experience is something that everyone defines a little differently. For you, college success might mean getting good grades and academic awards, preparing well for your future career, or making networking connections that will help you to achieve your goals, among many other options. Many of these definitions are subjective, personal, or unquantifiable, which makes it difficult to use them to determine the predictive ability of standardized tests.
When schools and other institutions attempt to define college success, they tend to stick with factors that can be quantified and compared more easily. Commonly used measures of success include college GPA, graduation rate, or how long the average student takes to graduate. Success in college might also be measured by how many students find high-quality employment after graduation, or the average income of students a certain number of years after graduation.
Researchers have attempted to study the relationships between SAT and ACT scores and each of these measures of success, as well as others. Some of these studies haven’t produced much useful data, but some have found potentially interesting correlations between a student’s standardized test scores and their eventual college performance.
The Data: What Have Researchers Discovered, and What Does It Mean?
There isn’t space in this post to go over the entire body of research on test scores and college success in great detail. We can say this much: overall, studies have shown that students who score higher on the SAT and/or ACT are slightly more likely to achieve higher grades in college and higher incomes after college.
In this sense, we can say that in general, higher standardized test scores do show a correlation with college success as it’s usually defined. This effect is heightened because top-tier colleges, which tend to have very successful students, use test scores as a selection factor, so students with high test scores are more likely to get admitted to colleges that will give them the best chance to succeed. However, it’s not quite that simple; several other factors complicate this interpretation.
First of all, these studies only show correlation, not causation, a distinction you may have learned about in science or statistics courses. Basically, we can see that students who score highly on the SAT and ACT do tend to also show higher levels of college success, but this information doesn’t tell us why this happens, or necessarily mean that the former causes the latter.
Whether a student does well on the SAT or ACT can be affected by a variety of factors aside from the student’s inherent aptitude. For instance, it’s pretty clear that targeted test preparation can raise your scores, but high-quality resources for preparing for the SAT and ACT aren’t available or accessible to everyone. It’s hard to tell how these factors interact to produce a successful college student; other factors might have more of an impact than high test scores.
Another factor to take into account is that even when studies do show a relationship between test scores and college success, the correlation is not very strong. In other words, a student who gets a higher score on the ACT or SAT is slightly more likely to be more successful in college, but only slightly. Your standardized test scores don’t always predict your future.
Some studies have found that in practice, your high school grades and GPA tend to be better predictors of your eventual college success than your SAT and/or ACT scores. It’s thought that course grades, which are made up of many different assignments and exams over a long period of time, are more comparable to the challenges you’ll encounter in college than your test scores.
To maintain a high GPA, you need to put consistent and dedicated effort into your coursework over a long period of time, and skill in this area will be invaluable as you move on to college. Standardized test scores are based on a smaller amount of data, collected at only a few test sittings, so they may not reflect as accurately your ability to keep up a high level of performance throughout your college experience and in your future career.
What Can I Do With This Information?
There are a lot of opinions out there about the value of standardized tests and how much they do or should matter. In recent years, a handful of colleges, including some that are very well-regarded, have decided to go “test-optional,” meaning that they don’t require students to submit SAT or ACT scores as part of their applications. (You can learn more about test-optional colleges in our blog post The Reality of the Testing-Optional Trend.)
Still, it’s clear that your SAT and ACT scores measure something that’s important to the majority of colleges when they’re considering applicants for admission. Most competitive colleges require you to submit these test scores, so it’s important that you put time and effort into preparing for your tests in order to get the best scores that you can.
The data we have right now does suggest that your SAT and/or ACT scores may have some value in predicting how well you’ll do in college. High test scores may indicate that you’re well-prepared for the challenges that college will present. At the same time, however, it’s wise not to get too caught up in trying to predict the future, especially while you’re still in high school.
Getting high scores on your standardized tests doesn’t guarantee that college will be a breeze for you, especially if you attend a college that’s known for its academic rigor. Your own choices will also affect how well you do in college, from which courses or majors you pursue to how well you study and organize your time.
By the same token, if your test scores are lower than you’d like them to be, this doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to fail in college. Some students just perform much better in a classroom than they do on standardized tests. Besides, you still have time to improve your study habits, get help with particular problem areas, and otherwise work on doing better in school.
If you’re preparing to apply to competitive colleges, you definitely need to take the SAT and/or ACT, and also take some time to study and prepare beforehand to maximize your chance of a good score. These tests are still required by the large majority of colleges, and a good score is a necessity for admission into the most prestigious and popular schools.
However, it’s equally clear that your standardized test scores are not the be-all and end-all of academic success, and you shouldn’t place too much value on these tests as a measure of your ability and worth. A correlation exists between high test scores and college success, but many other factors are also important in determining your educational path.
Get informed and prepare responsibly for your SAT and/or ACT, but don’t let yourself get too caught up in the outcome of these tests. Making the most of your time in high school, finding a college that’s a great fit for you, and setting yourself up to achieve your goals are much more complicated than your score on any standardized test.
Interested in gathering information about the SAT and ACT, their aims, and how they work? Go straight to the source—check out the official SAT website here and the official ACT website here, where you can also register for future test dates and find helpful review materials.
Once you’ve learned the basics of the ACT and SAT, CollegeVine is your source for further insight on topics like how to prepare effectively for standardized tests, what to do the day of your test, and how colleges will view your scores. Read these posts for more:
For more personal assistance from our experienced and trained tutors, don’t forget to check out CollegeVine’s SAT Tutoring Program.