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Ask Mike: Which SAT Section is Most Important?

Dear Mike:

Do colleges value any one of the three SAT sections over the others?

Scott N.

 

Dear Scott,

Well, first of all, if you want to maximize your options when applying to colleges, don’t worry about whether any one section is more important than any other; instead, prepare thoroughly enough that you do well on all three.

Having said that, there are some instances in which certain scores may be more or less important than others.

First, if you are planning to apply to a specific major or program within a school, do a bit of research to determine if one of the three scores is more important than the others. For instance, if you are applying to an engineering program, most likely the school will want to see very solid math scores; in fact, they may even require that you achieve a minimum math score to apply in the first place. If you are applying to a school whose emphasis is on the humanities rather than on math and science, you should probably make sure you max out that Critical Reading and/or Writing score.

Second, a few schools, including some very selective ones, indicate that a student’s Writing score will not factor into the admissions decisions (Georgetown is one such school). This spurning of the Writing section is probably rooted in the fact that when the Writing section was added to the test, there was understandable concern that the addition of the essay would inject a degree of subjectivity into the scoring process; essays must be scored by human beings rather than by a Scantron—a machine that will never give a lower score because it is hungry and cranky. (As a side note, nearly all of the tests required for admission to graduate programs—the GRE, the LSAT, the MCAT, the GMAT—as well as many of the AP tests include human-scored essay portions, but there is rarely as much outcry against those writing portions. Of course, the essays on many of the graduate tests rarely affect a student’s chances for admission; on the LSAT, for instance, the essay is not even scored, although schools do receive a copy of it.) Also, there were many schools that, prior to 2005, had little experience interpreting SAT Writing scores. Those schools that required the SAT Writing Subject Test—which was nearly identical in content to the new Writing section—did, but the majority of schools did not require this test and so had little or no frame of reference from which to gauge the scores. After the Writing portion was added to the SAT, it was probably easier for many of these schools to say, “We didn’t care about it before, so why should we care about it now,” a position that doesn’t jibe well with the fact that a 2008 study conducted by the College Board showed that the Writing section—not  Math or Critical Reading—correlated best with college freshman year grades.

To sum up, certain schools and programs will place different emphasis on different scores, so do your research. Find out what the schools to which you intend to apply want. Of course, for those of you looking to attend one of the most selective universities, you’ll need to get all three of your scores well into the 700s.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned in several posts, keep in mind that some schools don’t require SAT or ACT scores at all. So if you have a great GPA, have challenged yourself with a rigorous curriculum, are a great essay writer, and have accumulated an impressive list of extracurricular activities and achievements but just cannot seem to master those pesky tests, you should probably consider looking in to some of those schools.

 

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