Since the creation of standardized tests like the SAT and ACT, teachers, students, and college administrators have debated GPA vs. test scores, and which is the better predictor of future success.
In this post, I’m going to discuss which, between GPA and SAT and/or ACT scores, is more important in the eyes of a college admissions director.
My goal is to help you understand how colleges and universities will value and weigh you or your student’s grade point average and standardized test scores against one another.
Let’s get started!
The Value Of A Good GPA
It’s important to understand the reasons why grade point averages are not quite as important as they were in the past.
There’s no denying the value of a good, or especially great, GPA. Your grade point average tells colleges and universities a lot about you, including your ability to think critically and academically, concentrate and focus on tasks with attainable goals, and your dedication, perseverance, and drive.
While it’s impossible to overstate how significant your GPA is to the eyes of an admissions representative -- after all, your grade point average is truly the bedrock of your academic career and success in high school -- it’s important to understand that grade point averages are not quite as important as they were in the past.
Like our paper currency, grade point averages across the United States have suffered from massive inflation in the last few years. The fact of the matter is that a “4.0” means a lot less today than it did in the past, which brings down the weighted value of a GPA on most college applications.
Here are a few reasons why this has happened.
- Modern Education and Parenting. This is a big one. Modern education has shifted towards a less punitive, more positive reinforcement approach to schooling that places greater emphasis on students’ emotional well-being and happiness. Parenting, particularly Millennial parenting, has behaved in similar fashion. We’re not here to debate the merits of these contemporary strategies, but it is important to note the importance they’re having on the concept of a GPA as a whole.
- Natural Inflation. Again, it is natural that, over time, we experience some sort of inflation with regards to GPA, as with many gradual points that evolve with time. What this means is that a "3.0" in 2017 will not have the exact same weight as it would have in 1987 or beyond. Think of GPA again in terms of paper currency - both have dealt with inflation over time that changes their inherent value.
- Strength Schedule. Today’s average high school student has access to more Advanced Placement and IB programs that students in the past couldn’t take. But the real key to understanding GPA’s lessened value from this change is the fact that many modern students are taking these classes and on these tracks! It has been a true shift in modern education; today’s high schools can offer better, complete learning experiences than higher education. As such, even students with high-grade point averages who’ve taken a dozen AP courses are viewed as far more normal or average than they would have been in the past.
What all this means is that your standardized test scores (SAT and ACT for high school students) are even more important today than they were a decade ago. It also means that, more than ever, you need to take extra care of the test score component of your application, because your GPA will only comprise roughly 30% of today’s admissions pie.
Just How Important Are Your SAT And/Or ACT Scores?
SAT and/or ACT scores are the most important part of any high school student’s college application.
There are several reasons for this statement, a few of which we’ve already outlined, but for the sake of better understanding these tests, we can pinpoint their worth as roughly 35%-40% of value in your admissions pie (with GPA, extracurricular activities, and miscellaneous work splitting the rest).
There are a few reasons colleges and universities place such significant value on these scores.
The first reason is more internal: these scores give colleges a way to plot every student in America against one another on the exact same scale. Unlike GPA, which can vary from school to school, everyone takes the same SAT and ACT exams.
Here’s an example of two students, Tony and Sasha. Tony went to Bingham High School, where an A-letter grade is extremely easy to come by, even in AP classes. He graduates with an unweighted 3.90 and scored a 28 on his ACT. On the other hand, Sasha went to Brighton High School where A-letter grades are harder to come by, especially in AP classes. She graduates with an unweighted 3.75 and scored a 30.
Even without understanding the grade inflation at Tony’s high school, 9 out 10 college administrators will prefer Sasha in this scenario. Why? Because they know that a 3.75 is still impressive, showing many of the same traits that we see in Tony, but the extra couple of points on the ACT place Sasha in a different level of student. See, GPAs are fairly similar. Unless you are below an unweighted 3.5, you are on the right track.
The second reason is much more external: colleges care deeply about these scores because of how they impact their national and regional rankings in publications like The US News & World Report. From a marketing standpoint, they are mission critical.
Why? These listings tell parents and students how the world views and should view the schools they want to attend, and what pitfalls to watch out for when applying. These third-party rankings are extremely important then to colleges and enable them to remain competitive with each other.
It is not always easy hearing that standardized test scores are truly the most important component of a college application, but it’s important to realize the validity of this statement. We have to be willing to study and prepare for these tests as we would classes in the past in order to give our college applications our best shot!
Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way
Besides working on getting the highest possible standardized test score, there are other things you can do to bolster your overall package to college admissions officers.
Your standardized test scores, mainly your scores on the SAT and ACT, are going to be the centerpiece of your application as a high school student. Whether or not you agree with the way in which college administrators prioritize standardized tests in students’ applications, it’s the system.
And we need to act accordingly. This requires taking these tests as seriously as possible, utilizing things like SAT prep courses, ACT prep courses, and a variety of tactics to bolster our final score; even just a single point improvement can make all the difference in the world.
That said, test scores are not everything. Despite their massive importance, there are other ways to beef up your college applications. Branch out and try some new extracurricular activities! I’ve worked with a number of students who are master debaters who never thought a debate would be something they’d like to do. I’ve also seen students come out of their shells and join social clubs that they didn’t think they’d ever enjoy.
I also recommend meeting with college admissions associates when they come into town at college fairs and the like. When I was in high school, I met with an associate from Brown, which turned out to be one of the Ivy League schools I actually go into! This is a great way to introduce yourself to the person who will be reading and analyzing your application. After all, what do you have to lose?
Long story short, if there’s a will, there’s a way. If you don’t have the highest test scores in the world or are stuck below the 25th percentile in schools you want to attend, there are a variety of things you can do to improve your academic standing and overall application to have a shot at your dream school.
So good luck out there and keep calm and carry on!
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