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Does the SAT Predict Your College Success and Income?

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Posted by Francesca Fulciniti | Sep 21, 2015 8:00:00 AM

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You know it’s important for you to do well on the SATs because better scores will get you into a better college - top colleges want high SAT scores because they are supposed to indicate insight that a particular student is academically strong. Ultimately, a better college education is supposed to help you be more successful in your career. But do your SAT scores really speak to how competent or prepared you are as a potential student? And does a great college really increase your chances of professional success? These are tough, but important, questions - I’ll address them all here.

First, I’ll talk about what the research says about the relationships between SAT scores, college success, and income. Then, I’ll present some explanations for why these factors are (or are not) related - it might not be for the reasons you think. So what’s the real relationship between your SAT scores, college success, and income? Why do these questions even matter? Read on to find out!


What Are the Relationships Between SAT Scores, College Success, and Income? 

In these next sections, I'll talk about the correlations between SAT scores, college success, and future income. If there's a correlation between two factors or variables, that means there's a relationship between them - a positive correlation means that if one variable increases, the other variable will also increase. Causation is something a little different: if there's a causal relationship between two factors, it means one has a direct effect on the other. 

Just because there's a correlation between two factors doesn't mean there's a causal relationship. Still, though, the correlational relationships I'll discuss are important because they give us clues about how important some predictive factors are - for example, can high SAT scores predict future income? You're about to find out. 


SAT and College Success

If you have high SAT scores, are you likely to get better grades in college?  Perhaps unsurprisingly, most research studies find that your SAT scores do predict college success - to an extent. The relationship isn't particularly strong, which means that if you have high SAT scores, you're only slightly more likely to have higher college grades than a student who had lower scores. Research shows a similar relationship between SAT scores and high school grades

Given this relationship, it makes sense that colleges use the SAT as part of their admissions criteria. Schools tend to prefer students with higher SAT scores because they think that, in some small part, these scores could predict how well these students do in school. If schools accept students with higher scores and then these students are successful in college (and beyond), the schools will begin building a positive reputation. 

Ultimately, higher SAT scores might predict college success, but they'll more likely make you a more competitive college applicant. Keep in mind, though, that high and low scores are totally relative (read more about good and bad SAT scores). 


SAT and Income

If you have high SAT scores, are you likely to earn more money after you graduate from college? There does seem to be a positive relationship between SAT performance and future income - that is, the better a student scores on her SAT, the more likely she is to earn more money later in life. One study found that high scorers not only went on to earn higher incomes, but they were also more likely to earn PhDs, file patents, and get tenure as a professor at a top university. 

Again, though, this relationship doesn't seem particularly strong. There are many other factors that better predict future income; not all Bachelor degrees pay the same


College Success and Income

If you're more successful in college, are you likely to earn more later in life? To answer this question, I'm going to break "college success" down into two different parts: success as attending a top school, and success as earning a high GPA. 


Top Schools and Income

If you end up at a top college, are you likely to earn more money than other college graduates? 

Students who attend top colleges tend to do pretty well. Top colleges are well-rated in the first place because they have good reputations, high graduation rates, strong undergraduate programs, and strong alumni networks. It would make sense that these factors would be related to greater income post-graduation. And that's exactly what the research shows: graduates of science/math-heavy schools and Ivy League schools tend to earn more than graduates of other colleges

Again, though, these are correlative relationships - you don't necessarily need to graduate from a top college in order to earn a lot of money. Simply getting a college degree is likely to significantly increase your future earnings. 


GPA and Income

If you get better grades in college, are you likely to earn more money than students with lower GPAs? 

In general, students who do well in college tend to earn more after they graduate. This might depend on your field. Research has found that the difference in income between low-GPA and high-GPA graduates can amount to tens of thousands of dollars in certain careers. You might imagine that if many recent grads are competing for the same awesome job, GPA could end up a very important factor in hiring decisions. So yes, depending on your career path, higher grades are correlated with higher income


How Do All of These Factors Fit Together? 

It looks like SAT scores, college success, and income are all positively correlated. We can infer that higher SAT scores tend to predict greater college success, and greater college success tends to predict higher incomes later on. These relationships seem to generally fit what we expect. It's important to keep in mind, though, that these are relationships, not rules - just because someone has a perfect SAT score, for example, doesn’t mean that she will end up a millionaire. 

The real question is WHY these factors are related. Why do we expect high SAT scores→ better college → higher income? I’ll address the possible explanations in the next section.


What's the Reason for the Relationships Between SAT Scores, College Success, and Income? 



What do you think leads to successful outcomes? 


There’s no empirically supported response to this question. Just because we can observe a relationship (correlation) doesn’t mean we can determine what’s driving it (causation). In this section, though, I’ll present some of the most plausible explanations for the reason behind these relationships. 


1. A Better SAT Score Means You'll Get Into a Better College, and Attending a Better College Means More Opportunities for a Higher Income. 

This explanation is perhaps the most straightforward. Top colleges consider students more competitive if they have higher SAT scores - we know this to be true (although standardized test scores aren’t the only things that admissions officers consider). The better the school you attend, the more career opportunities are available to you. 

Here's an example to explain what I mean. Let's say we have two very similar students who attend high school together: same GPA, same list of extracurriculars, same AP courses. Student A studies for two months for the SAT and scores a 1500, whereas student B studies for one week and scores a 1120. Although both display the same degree of talent and intellectual ability, Student A gets into an Ivy League college and student B doesn't. Student A has access to more career fairs and recruiters, and can utilize a stronger alumni network before getting her first job, ultimately making more money than Student B.

She isn't smarter or more ambitious than her peer - she just has more doors open to her. With student talent (and even the fundamental quality of education) being equal between two people, the opportunities that come with a top college make it easier to earn a higher income after graduation.  


2. If You're Naturally Smart, You'll Have High SAT Scores and Probably High Grades. This Means You'll Get Into a Better College and Have More Opportunities to Earn a Higher Income. 



This baby was born smart and happened to score a perfect 1600. 


This is the College Board's general position on the SAT exam: it's designed to be a totally fair exam that tests aptitude and critical thinking, not general knowledge or even test-taking strategy. Thus, smarter students should earn higher scores without too much practice or prep. Intelligent students will go on to have success in other areas (college applications, job searches) because they're naturally skilled

Some smart people are naturally good test-takers who can earn fantastic scores without much effort. But there are many smart students who don’t necessarily do well on the SAT at first. High school students who don't have much information on the exam, or don't have a strong foundation in core SAT content areas, are at a particular disadvantage (even if they're smart). Test-taking anxiety or unfamiliarity with the exam can significantly bring down the scores intelligent students. Ultimately, while natural smarts might lead to higher scores, many other factors (unrelated to intelligence) can bring them down.


3. If You Come From a Privileged Background, You've Had More Opportunities (Like a Better High School Education), Leading to a Higher SAT Score and Greater Chances for Future Success. 

Having resources available to you through childhood into adulthood definitely doesn’t make things harder. Students may be fortunate enough to hire a private SAT tutor, for example. Perhaps parents help ensure future success through their own professional connections. Many critics of the SAT endorse this explanation - they feel that for this reason, the SAT puts students from underprivileged backgrounds at a disadvantage, which isn’t fair.

Research tends to support this explanation: one study, sardonically naming the SAT the "Student Affluence Test," showed that students from wealthy families tend to out-score students from low-income families by about 400 points. That's a huge margin, one that can make an enormous impact on the sorts of colleges that are within students' reach. While you don't need to come from a wealthy family to do well on the SAT, attend a top college, and earn a high income, it seems that low-income students are fighting an uphill battle. 


So Which Explanation Is the Right One? 

What's the right recipe for success on the SAT, in college, and even in your career? Like I mentioned at earlier points in this points, it's really difficult to establish causality when discussing the effects of different factors on future success. It's likely that the "right" explanation is some combination of the ones listed above. High SAT scores + natural smarts + privileged background might be the easiest recipe for future success, but it isn't the only one. There are some factors you won't have any control over - like your family background, or natural test-taking aptitude - but there are things you can do to bring up your SAT scores. And like I mentioned in Explanation #1, SAT scores seem to have the clearest connection to college success and income. I'll address strategies for maxing out your chances for future success in the next section. 


How Do You Set Yourself Up for Future Success If You're at a Disadvantage? 



Even an uphill climb can be made easier with the right tools. 


If you don’t consider yourself a natural test-taker, or if you don’t come from a privileged background, you might be nervous about the SAT. You know it determines (to some extent) what sort of college you can get into, and it tends to predict income. So what can you do if you want to give yourself the best chance possible at being successful?


Self Study

Work out of a book on your own, take practice tests, and review your wrong answers to improve your scores over a set timeline. The College Board Blue Book is a great place to start if you plan on studying on your own. PrepScholar's blog is also a great free resource for comprehensive, up-to-date content on studying for the SAT.

However, this self-study strategy might not be the best option for students who tend to procrastinate or who lack motivation. 


Take an SAT Class

SAT classes are great for an intro to the test, especially if you want to focus on learning strategy. These classes can help you get motivated, but they're not customized to your particular strengths and weaknesses. 


Get a Private Tutor 

A private, one-on-one tutor can be a great resource because you get a totally customized experience. It’s also very costly, and it can be difficult to find an experienced and proven instructor. Wyzant is a good place to start looking for tutors in your area - you can see how tutees have rated them in the past. 


Use PrepScholar's SAT Prep 

PrepScholar's program is affordable, customized, and effective. Get more info on the SAT prep program.  


What's Next? 

Ready to do your future self a favor? You can start right now by checking out our guides to the SAT. The right sidebar includes links to some of our most popular guides and a list of topics to explore further.

Beginners should start here by learning about good and bad SAT scores, and what scores they should be aiming for.

Already an SAT expert? Maybe you'd be interested in Ivy League SAT scores, or a guide to getting the perfect score


Disappointed with your scores? Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points? We've written a guide about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points

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Francesca Fulciniti
About the Author

Francesca graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and scored in the 99th percentile on the SATs. She's worked with many students on SAT prep and college counseling, and loves helping students capitalize on their strengths.

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