Why the SAT still matters: an empirical breakdown

Why the SAT still matters: an empirical breakdown

Is the SAT really still relevant?

Given the flurry of US universities that went “test optional” over the pandemic, students were left wondering whether they could truly evade taking the SAT – a long-standing pillar of the university admissions process.

Pandemic restrictions added another layer of uncertainty to this question, as at the height of lockdowns and spatial constraints, administering the SAT became nearly impossible in certain countries.


COVID aside, the past few months have also seen the world of higher education engage in an ongoing conversation about the overall relevance of standardized testing as a whole. On the one hand, many questioned whether exams like the SAT could ever be truly indicative of a student’s “college readiness,” or if they are more so a measure of how much spare time and additional support an individual has to prepare for such a test.

Last year, the University of California school system even took a stand to corroborate this side of the debate, removing standardized testing from their admissions criteria entirely.

The flip side

On the other hand, many have also argued to the contrary – that standardized testing should be officially reinstated, being the only broad measure by which universities can compare their applicants.

Proponents of this side of the coin reason that in any case, standardized testing is really just one of many data points used in the holistic admissions process, and won’t ever make or break a student’s admissions outcomes. 

As COVID restrictions gradually eased, however, the world saw students voluntarily returning to standardized tests. In places like Singapore, test seats were even booked out well in advance of each test date, begging the question 


What has caused the SAT to remain as popular as ever amidst test optional policies and recent debates surrounding its relevance? 


Recent news

In truth, recent statistics have shown that a solid SAT score still makes a difference to the competitiveness of your final application.

“The reality is that, as long as tests are still being offered, there’s something to be gained by students scoring well on them,” reported the National Association for College Admissions Counseling in its Fall 2020 Journal of College Admission.

In the context of the most competitive universities, this makes sense: when applying against candidates of the highest caliber, the difference between having an SAT score and not can be astounding. 

Let’s take a look at some recent data from the Common Data Set – a higher education initiative aimed at increasing transparency and collaboration throughout the university admissions process:



In this table of admissions criteria from Yale University, standardized test scores are marked as “Considered” rather than “Important” or “Very Important” – perhaps to keep in line with the test optional policies and messaging that most universities continue to adopt, even in this application cycle. 


Digging slightly deeper into the data, however, reveals a clearer picture: of all first-year students who enrolled at Yale in Fall 2021, 89% of them had submitted either an SAT or an ACT score as a part of their application (and incredibly strong ones, too!), suggesting that standardized testing indeed made a difference to overall admissions outcomes.

This finding is very much corroborated by data from other competitive universities. In fact, searching through the Common Data Sets of other top institutions, one will find that many of them – including NYU and Duke University – do not hesitate to indicate the importance of these scores relative to other application components: 


New York University

Duke University

There’s no telling exactly what the future of standardized testing will hold.

On the one hand, some schools (public universities, especially) may follow the University of California’s lead by slowly but surely letting go of SATs, ACT, and more.

On the other, universities may follow in the footsteps of MIT instead – the first leading institution to reinstate the standardized testing mandate since the pandemic hit.

In their official statement, MIT stated their belief – grounded in research – that:

Standardized tests not only help “better assess the academic preparedness of all applicants,” but also assist in identifying “socioeconomically disadvantaged students who lack access to advanced coursework or other enrichment opportunities that would otherwise demonstrate their readiness for MIT.”

True to their word and commitment to transparency, MIT publishes their official standardized testing statistics on their website itself, revealing the true extent of the school’s selectivity:

Of all the applicants they receive who fall in the very highest SAT scoring bracket, only 10-11% are offered a spot.

Although several other factors are also at play – from extracurriculars to essays – the fact remains:

Investing the time and effort into achieving a great SAT score does matter.

Especially if one wants a fighting chance at receiving positive admissions outcomes to the world’s toughest universities.

Preparing successfully for the SAT is a matter of pure strategy and consistent practice over time – made infinitely easier by teaching experts who have coached countless students toward their target score. If you’d like to explore how you can most effectively approach your SAT preparation journey, find out more here.