Standardized test scores have long had an important place in college admissions, as well as for some jobs. Schools and employers want to they accept the most talented people, so they often use SAT scores to judge intelligence and future success. However, some common beliefs about what SAT scores represent are actually false.
Read this guide to learn what information SAT scores can and cannot be used to determine and maximize the usefulness of standardized test scores for your school, business, or committee.
Who Uses SAT Scores?
First of all, who uses SAT scores? Standardized test scores are used by many different people and groups, and I'll discuss three of the most common below.
College Admissions Officers
Colleges and universities are, by far, the most frequent users of SAT scores. Most schools require applicants to submit standardized test scores as part of their application.
SAT scores can be useful to colleges because they give them a standard way to measure intelligence and predict college success. While there are other ways of measuring a student’s academic abilities, such as their GPA and class rank, these can vary widely between schools. A student who gets an “A” in their high school’s calculus class may only have been awarded a “C” if they had done the same work at a different school due to grade inflation, class curves, and how hard the teacher grades.
Using SAT scores gives colleges a clear and efficient way to evaluate high school students from around the world. As students apply to more schools, this criteria is becoming more important because most colleges receive thousands, if not tens of thousands, of applications each year. SAT scores give colleges a fast and unambiguous way to evaluate each application they receive.
It is less common for employers to use SAT scores, but it’s still done, particularly in the fields of consulting, software engineering, and investment banking. Similar to colleges, these companies want an easy and clear way to measure an applicant’s intelligence. SAT scores can be especially useful for large companies that receive a lot of applications, as well as companies hiring recent graduates who don’t have a lot of work experience.
One of the SAT’s earliest purposes was actually as a scholarship test for Ivy League schools. Today, many scholarships require applicants to submit standardized test scores. Like colleges and employers, the SAT can give scholarship committees a simple and unambiguous way to measure student aptitude and compare students who may be otherwise similar.
Many scholarships help pay for college, and the committees who oversee these scholarships often want to award them to students who are most likely to put them to good use and do well in school. SAT scores are a way to predict which applicants have the highest likelihood of being successful.
Don't use SAT scores for the reasons listed below.
How Shouldn't You Use SAT Scores?
First, let's go over what you should not be using SAT scores to determine. I've listed four inaccurate ways to use SAT scores below and explained why each one doesn’t give wholly accurate information.
As a Complete Indicator of Intelligence
While the SAT is often used to determine how “smart” someone is, there are three problems with doing so.
The first problem is that the SAT only tests a narrow set of skills and intelligence. The SAT can help estimate how good someone is at reading comprehension, identifying grammatical errors, and solving certain math problems, but in no way can a multiple choice test with an optional essay test all the complexities of intelligence.
The SAT cannot measure a student’s creativity, research skills, interpersonal intelligence, ability to easily learn a new language, or many other indicators of intelligence. By testing only certain types of intelligence, the SAT favors students with these types of intelligence while putting students with types of intelligence that are more difficult to test at a disadvantage.
The second problem with this way of understanding SAT scores is that test preparation can significantly raise your score. We at PrepScholar know that, through dedicated test prep, a student can significantly improve his or her SAT score. If one student gets a 1500 on the SAT without studying, and another raises his grade from a 1200 to a 1500 after 40 hours of studying, is one smarter than the other? Some may say the first student is smarter, but the decision to prepare for an important test like the SAT is also a measure of intelligence, so the answer is not really clear. Instead of measuring just intelligence, the SAT measures intelligence and motivation, because a student can have one or the other, or both, and do well on the test.
The third problem is that outside factors unrelated to intelligence often have a strong impact on SAT performance. Multiple studies have shown that there is a significant gap between the SAT scores of rich and poor students. One recent study found that students from wealthy families score about 400 points higher on the SAT than students low-income families. This result makes some sense because students who come from wealthier backgrounds likely attend schools with more resources, have parents who can afford SAT prep materials and courses, and often receive more pressure from their parents to do well on the SAT. Therefore, using the SAT as a measure of intelligence can discriminate against students from poorer backgrounds, who are also more likely to be minorities.
To Find a "Genius"
Sometimes schools and employers will admit someone with perfect SAT scores and think that person will be a genius, good at everything, or guaranteed to do well. A person who gets a perfect score on the SAT may, in fact, be very intelligent, but they may also have put a lot of time into preparing, gotten lucky that day, or a combination of the above.
Regardless of the reason, a person who gets a perfect score on the SAT won’t necessarily do well in everything else. As mentioned above, the SAT only tests certain types of intelligence, which also means that a person widely considered to be intelligent may not get a perfect score or even do very well on the SAT at all. It also shouldn’t be assumed that people with perfect SAT scores are more intelligent than those who didn’t receive perfect scores, which leads into the next point.
To Compare People With Similar Scores
The SAT should not be used to compare the intelligence of people who received similar scores, or a difference around 150 points or less.
A person with a score of 1450 and a person with a score of 1400 likely had only a small difference between the number of questions they answered correctly. The person who received the 1450 shouldn’t be assumed to be smarter than the person who received the 1400. Their differences in score could simply be due to normal variation in SAT results. If they both took the SAT again, it’d be completely possible for the person who got the 1400 to get the higher score that time.
A person's SAT scores can vary from test to test, and people can get questions right or wrong by mistake, which doesn’t necessarily reflect their intelligence. When two (or more) people have similar SAT scores, it’s not possible to determine who is more intelligent simply by looking at the slightly higher score because a person’s score will generally fluctuate somewhat. Even small changes in the number of questions answered correctly can have a large effect on the final composite score.
Don't compare applicants with very similar SAT scores.
To Determine Specific Areas of Expertise
The SAT also cannot, and should not, be used to judge someone’s skill level or knowledge of a specific topic. For example, a person who got a perfect score on the SAT essay may not know how to write a research paper, and someone who did well in the math section may not know anything about calculus.
If you’re provided with subscores, they may give more details on how well the applicant did in certain subjects, but this information should still not be used to make assumptions about specific skill sets and knowledge areas.
What Should You Use SAT Scores For?
So how can SAT scores be used? Three main ways are given below; in general, all involve using SAT scores to make broad inferences that can be further supported with additional information.
To Estimate IQ
SATs are certainly not a perfect way to measure how smart someone is, but there is a relationship between IQ and SAT score. While IQ only tests a certain type of problem-solving, (specifically the ability to solve problems based on the information you are given), it is still often used as a measure of intelligence.
Meredith C. Gray and Douglas K. Detterman, two researchers at Case Western Reserve University, have conducted rigorous studies to better understand the relationship between standardized test scores and intelligence. From their research, they have found that there is a strong correlation between SAT scores and IQ.
That means if someone scores well on the SAT then it is more likely, although not guaranteed, that they have a high IQ as well. Many schools and companies want to hire people with a certain level of intelligence in order to ensure they can handle the work, and while there are other types of intelligence that neither the SAT nor IQ exams test for, using SAT scores can be a good way to estimate IQ and intelligence if you have many applicants you don’t know much about.
In order to be most accurate, other information, such as GPA and letters of recommendation should be used to support inferences made from SAT scores. A student with a high SAT score, excellent GPA, and a history of leadership in her extracurriculars has done well in high school and seems likely to continue that success. However, a student with a low SAT score should not necessarily be discounted, especially if they are strong in other areas, such as a good GPA and glowing letters of recommendation. That person may have had a bad test day, get nervous during standardized tests, or excel in other areas not tested by the SAT.
SAT scores cannot accurately determine how smart every person who takes the exam is, so when reviewing applications, all of a student’s materials should be examined carefully in order to make the most accurate assessment. Personal statements and letters of recommendation can often provide more in-depth information on an applicant’s strengths and personality.
As an Indicator of Broad Areas of Strength and Weakness
As mentioned above, you can't use SAT scores to determine if someone is knowledgeable in a very specific subject area, such as Victorian literature or human biology. However, it is sometimes possible to make inferences as to what broad subject areas the test-taker is stronger and weaker in.
Beginning in March 2016, a student's total SAT score will be the sum of the scores of two sections: Math and Evidence-Based Reading & Writing. There is also an optional essay. If a person scored much higher in one section than another, it may be possible to determine which areas they are most skilled and comfortable in. For example, someone with a perfect score of 800 for the Math section, but a 600 in Evidence-Based Reading and Writing may be stronger in math and science. This is certainly not always true, but it can help support an inference if there is other related evidence, such as a transcript showing lots of math and science classes and a personal statement describing a passion for chemistry.
This can be important information for employers looking to hire people with a certain skill set. For example, an engineering company would likely want their employees to have strong math skills but not care as much about writing skills. Colleges can use this information in a similar way. If a student is applying for a school’s journalism program, admissions officers may be more interested in their reading and writing scores than their math score.
SAT scores can indicate a person's strengths.
To Help Make Efficient Admissions Decisions
Sometimes, particularly if a college, employer, or scholarship committee receives a high number of applicants, they need a way to quickly make acceptance or rejection decisions. SAT scores provide a clear and efficient way to judge an applicant’s academic ability, and as the number of colleges students apply to increases, schools have begun to rely more on standardized tests as an admission factor.
Almost every school publishes the range of SAT scores for the students in its most recent entering class. Half of the class scored within this 25th-75th percentile range. Comparing a student’s SAT scores to the school’s score range can help admissions officers easily identify students far below or above that range and make those admissions decisions easier.
For example, if a school’s 25th-75th percentile range is 1300 to 1450, a student who scored a 1160 on the SAT will likely not be offered admission, while a student with a 1550 appears to have an excellent chance of being accepted. However, how a student does in relation to a school’s SAT score range should not be the only criteria for admission.
A student with a lower-than-average SAT score may have excellent letters of recommendation and extracurriculars, while a student with a great SAT score may not have much else to recommend her. SAT scores can help make an initial decision easier, but the final admission decision should take other factors into account.
Can SAT Scores Predict Future Success?
The main reason that most people use SAT scores is because they are attempting to select people they feel will be successful at their school or company and beyond. The line of thinking is that people who score well on the SAT are intelligent or know how to prepare for something well, and they will continue to use those skills in the future. Is this true? The short answer is, “sometimes.”
A high school student who scores well on the SAT will usually have at least a certain degree of intelligence and motivation, but that does not always mean they will do well in college. The student could have spent a lot of time studying for the SAT but then felt like he could coast once he got to college, he could find the heavy workload challenging, he may struggle to adapt to new surroundings, he may not work well in groups, or one of many more potential scenarios.
Researchers who have studied this relationship have found that SAT scores only account for 10-20 percent of the variation in their college GPAs freshman year; however, this study did not take into account that schools admit students with a relatively narrow range of SAT scores, which may make the relationship appear weaker than it is. Another study found that high school GPA is a better indicator of whether a student will succeed in college than SAT score. This makes sense because a GPA takes into account the grades from your entire four years in high school, as opposed to the scores of a single test.
The relationship between SAT scores and career success is even weaker. There is a correlation between people with higher SAT scores and people who end up working in more competitive fields and have more advanced degrees, but SAT score alone doesn’t always predict success. There are numerous factors required to be successful in most careers that the SAT can’t test for, such as interpersonal skills and work ethic, not to mention the specific skills needed to do certain jobs well.
SAT scores should never be used as the sole indicator of someone’s intelligence or probability of success; they don’t measure a wide enough variety of skills or types of intelligence, and they can be influenced by too many outside factors.
However, studies have shown a strong correlation between SAT score and IQ, and a person who does well on the SAT is usually either intelligent, hard-working, or a combination of the two, which can make them more successful students and employees.
In the end, SAT scores should be used as one part of an application that, along with other materials such as GPA, letters of recommendation, personal statements, and extracurriculars can help determine personal strengths and identify which people have a higher probability of success.
Want more information about the SAT? We have a complete explanation of the test and the impact it has on schools and students.
Wondering what SAT scores measure? Read our guide to learn the relationship between SAT scores, IQ, and income.
Looking for more information on SAT scores? Our guide explains how the SAT is scored and what those scores mean.
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Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.