How Important are SAT and ACT for college admissions?

05/20/2016 03:50 pm ET Updated May 21, 2017

One of the most frequent questions we get at Synocate is how important academics are for college admissions. Specifically, many students ask us about standardized tests and GPA. In this article, we will break down the frequently asked questions about standardized tests, the academic index, and way to think about how academics as a whole.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Should I take SAT or ACT? Which is better for college admissions?

This is by far the most common question we are asked related to standardized exams. The truth is it does not matter. Truly. We have spoken to dozens of college admissions officers and an overwhelming majority are frustrated that students think the way to gain an edge in admissions is to take one or the other.

2. Should I retake the test (SAT or ACT)?

Students often ask us how many times is the optimal number. The most we recommend is 3 attempts. After that, it appears to us and to admissions officers that you are taking the test too many times and should focus your energy on switching tests, your activities, and your grades.

We recommend students take at least 3 months in between tests to get adequate time to prepare. In our experience, raising your score significantly in less time than that is possible but not highly probable. Consistent practice, practice across books and types of tests (difficulty), and timed exams are really helpful.

3. Should I switch which test I am taking?

Many students think switching will drastically affect their score. On some websites like College Confidential, students insist that certain tests give certain types of students advantages. For example, for students weaker in English the ACT is a better test.

In our experience, we have not seen drastic changes due to switching tests. Instead, students spend significant, focused time studying for the new test and get a breath of fresh air and motivation to study hard. Usually students will try switching after they have attempted one exam (SAT or ACT) once or twice and are not getting scores they like. Sometimes they are tired of the test and want to try something new.
It is hard to break out why exactly students do better - new motivation, differences in the exam, or test-day circumstances. But one thing we can definitively rely upon is the fact that consistent, timed exams are the key to scoring well over a substantial time frame. Back-to-back tests over months might help for some students due to test-day changes, but over thousands of students, these types of differences are negligible and might even pose a negative score trend.

4. How important are SAT II tests?

SAT II Subject tests are very important. These are timed exams that test for specific subject excellence. According to some university studies, the SAT II scores are more predictive than SAT I or ACT score even. To us at Synocate, the SAT II scores can be an indicator if we have to retake the SAT I or take more or less AP/IB exams.

We often see students with 700+ SAT II subject tests and SAT I or ACT scores that are lower than that on a relative basis. These types of students should retake. We also see students who have scores that are in-line with their larger SAT I or ACT counterparts. Often these second types of students try to switch tests or take them back to back. Instead, we encourage them to spend more time studying for the subject tests, take them in June after AP/IB exams, and practice with timed tests.

Colleges usually recommend 2 SAT II Subject tests, with a few exceptions (Georgetown is one). We believe over time these recommendations will standardize across colleges, and likely to the natural equilibrium of 2 tests. For students aiming for the Top 70 schools, recommendation basically means requirement. You should take these tests to be competitive.

Academic Index

The Academic Index is a formula that Ivy League schools invented to see if athletes were academically eligible for admission. It is a number out of 240 that takes into account your SAT I/ACT, SAT II, class size, and a few other factors.

We think the AI is a valuable tool that students and parents should use to get a sense of where they stand, but they do not need to benchmark their entire college plan based on the AI. The fact is, most students and parents we speak to do not know what the Academic Index is. Having another number to consider as the overall academic strength, regardless if you are an athlete or not, is helpful in figuring out this confusing process.
Check out this article we wrote specifically on AI and a graphical view on the AI.

The Synocate Pyramid

We invented a term we call the Synocate Pyramid. At the base is academics, in the middle is activities, and at the top is vision. A complete application has all three of these components. In order to gain acceptance to the Top 100 schools, students often miss vision.

Academics is the base. Without academics it is very tough to get into college. The Academic Index is one way we can measure all of the components of a student's academic metrics - SAT I/ACT, SAT II, GPA, class rank, school competitiveness, and number of AP/IB. We also created a ratio called the difficulty ratio - the ratio of AP/IB tests divided by the total offered. This ratio, combined with a student's unweighted GPA gives us the whole story on competitiveness and classroom achievement.

Activities is the middle. Once academics are covered, extracurricular activities are very important. We think that activities and vision (part 3) form 50% of an application. We break up activities into four key areas: in-school, out-of-school, social work, and competitions. We want to have activities that follow a central theme across these four categories.

Vision is the top of the pyramid. It is necessary for students to gain admission in the Ivy League or other top schools. In workshops we have hosted, some call it passion, others call it maturity. It is the ability to articulate our activities, why we do them, and what they mean to us as a maturing adult. Colleges are even more aware of students that do activities just for college admissions and can quickly sniff it out. Students should be genuine with themselves in their endeavors, and try to do introspection through journal writing throughout high school. At the very least, we have our 11th and 12th grade students think deeply about why they want to go to college, why they are doing what they do, and what they hope to achieve. The brilliance of this approach, which we call the Perspective Approach, is not that students lock down their primary interest which they follow throughout life, although that does happen. Instead, it is that students build a mental toolkit to explore their ever-changing interests and how these interests connect to the outside world. This is the most valuable skill students gain during the intensely introspective process of college admissions. Those that are successful are genuine, spend time thinking through their last 4 years, and articulate that vision.

The SAT and ACT are two exams that students take for entrance to US colleges. Many students approach us at Synocate with specific questions around tactics. We have answered the four most common questions here. We then went into the Academic Index, a number that colleges use that takes into account the major components of academics. We believe the Academic Index is valuable as a benchmark but should not be a sole source of information. Finally, we laid out the Synocate Pyramid, a mental framework to help students and parents think about how academics fits into the total college application process.