One STINKIN’ Question!

By: Judi Robinovitz | Last Updated: January 17, 2013

A recent survey of college admissions counselors conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) revealed that at more than one-third of post-secondary schools, an increase of as little as 10 points in a SAT Reading score or as little as 20 points in a SAT Math score would “significantly improve a student’s likelihood of admission.”

There are typically 66 Reading questions in the SAT, and a 10 point difference in a Reading score can amount to a single one of those questions. And there are typically 54 Math questions in the SAT, and 20 point difference in a Math score can amount to a single one of those questions – and almost never more than two of them.

No wonder students and their parents are terrified about the college admission process.

Of all of the institutions surveyed by NACAC, when asked to rate the importance of test scores to admission decisions, 58 percent chose “considerable importance,” and the only two other admission criteria given higher ratings than test scores were strength of curriculum and grades in college prep courses.

Further, many schools use a “cut-off” test score criterion, in which a score below the cut-off means that there’s no chance for admission, and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education actually publishes what’s known as an Admission Eligibility Index that’s used to determine into which of Colorado’s state colleges students can be admitted. A student’s Index comes directly from a matrix consisting solely of GPA and SAT/ACT scores. Nothing else is considered — and if a student’s Eligibility Index score isn’t high enough, they won’t be, either.

So what if a student doesn’t get admitted to a top-tier school? Unfortunately, the answer can be “a lot,” and much of that “lot” has nothing to do with the quality of education provided by those schools.

Writing for, Eric Zuesse notes the significant redistribution of wealth into the hands of a small minority in this country and say that “The United States today is anything but an equal-opportunity society. This nation is instead rather rigidly stratified and becoming more so all the time.” Zuesse attributes much of that stratification to the fact that “A person’s social contacts are large determinants of the opportunities that will be presented to him, and college is a place where these social contacts are often made among the aristocracy. Colleges, especially the elite ones, have been the prime networking institution for the aristocracy.”

On a very closely related topic, Peter Robison, writing for, reports that, “The 1.2 million households whose incomes put them in the top 1 percent of the U.S. saw their earnings increase 5.5 percent last year, according to estimates released last month by the U.S. Census Bureau. Earnings fell 1.7 percent for the 96 million households in the bottom 80 percent -- those that made less than $101,583.

The recovery that officially began in mid-2009 hasn’t arrived in most Americans’ paychecks. In 2010, the top 1 percent of U.S. families captured as much as 93 percent of the nation’s income growth [italics added], according to a March paper by Emmanuel Saez, a University of California at Berkeley economist who studied Internal Revenue Service data.”

So what can be done to improve a student’s chances of gaining entry into schools of his or her choice and capturing some of that income and growth for themselves and their families-to-be? Well, consider that during a three-year high school career, the average student will spend a little under 4,000 hours of combined classroom and homework time to get a good GPA — and only about 10 hours preparing for the SAT. Further, consider that by the time most students start thinking really seriously about getting into a good college, the upper limits of their GPAs are already fixed by the grades they’ve received up to that point.

As an example of the latter, a student who enters his/her senior year with a 3.5 GPA (on a 4.0 scale) can do no better than a cumulative 3.67 even if he/she works incredibly hard and spends many hours to get the maximum 4.0 that last year. That’s less than a 5% improvement.

But the upper limits of that same average student’s SAT scores aren’t constrained by his or her prior SAT scores – if any. Only the inter-related phenomena of preparation and ability, along with the SAT’s maximum possible scores, constrain SAT scores. So, there’s a mathematically far greater chance to make significant improvements in SAT scores than in GPAs.

Even more important is that the “lousy” 5% increase in GPA discussed above can translate into a significant increase in a SAT score. For example, an increase from 600 to 630 in a SAT reading is only 5%, while – if you’ll recall – for many schools a 10 point increase in a SAT reading score would “significantly improve a student’s likelihood of admission.”

So does SAT prep really help?


We see it ourselves almost every day, and Ken Brody, writing in Westchester Magazine, notes that even the College Board, the company that manages the test and which had once maintained that no amount of prep work could boost student scores (because, it had said, the SAT was a measure of inalterable, inherent aptitude), now tells students, “you can improve your score” and get “better results” with additional effort and training.

Brody also writes, “Many tutors, admissions officers like Garrett Marino of SUNY Purchase, and even critics of the tests (like Fair Test, a group that opposes the use of standardized tests because they say the tests favor white, upper-class males) answer the question, “Can the test be coached?” with a simple “Yes.” Marino explains that, when students have been prepped, they often take the test multiple times, and “you see the score steadily increasing” on the transcript.”

So if you’re trying to help your son or daughter get into a good school so they can secure a bright future, you can have them attempt the almost impossible, which is to improve their GPA substantially, or you can help them achieve the absolutely and demonstrably attainable, which is a modest or better improvement in their ability to do well on the SAT.

I know which one I’d be choosin’…


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