How Important are SAT Scores to Colleges?

Claremont McKenna College announced in January that an admissions official had released inaccurate SAT score statistics in an effort to boost the school’s standing in the U.S. News & World Report Rankings. A college trying to game the rankings with false data is nothing new. In recent years, misleading information has been submitted by the law schools at the University of Illinois and Villanova University, and perhaps most egregiously by Iona College.

More surprising than the fact that these fraudulent actions occurred is the magnitude of the misrepresentation. A careful look at the numbers reveals average SAT score inflation of approximately 10 points in the Math section and 17 points in the Critical Reading section. Only 27 points out of 2400! In Claremont McKenna’s mean SAT score ranges, this represents about a two question difference in the Critical Reading section and only a one question difference in the Math section. The fact that an admissions official at Claremont McKenna was willing to commit fraud and risk his career to increase the school’s SAT scores by a mere three questions on a 170-question test underscores the extraordinary value of seemingly minor score differentials.

Students are not the only ones concerned about SAT scores. Colleges recognize how important scores are for their image and rankings.

In a related story from 2008, Baylor University offered financial rewards to admitted students who retook the SAT. This morally questionable policy boosted the school’s SAT score by a mere 10 points, at a cost to the university of over $400,000 in merit scholarships and bookstore credits.

What should students take away from all this? The importance of SAT scores to colleges. While people always have and will continue to decry the SAT for a million different reasons, the undeniable truth is that the SAT, along with the ACT, is the only standardized metric that colleges can use to compare the academic performance of students from across the country. This test is nearly as important to colleges as high school GPA, which students spend three years and thousands of hours cultivating. The lengths to which colleges will go to boost their SAT scores epitomize the point that when it comes to standardized testing, every question counts.

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How to Choose the Right High School Classes

Each spring, students decide which classes to take during the upcoming year. What many students do not realize is the classes chosen freshman year can affect which classes are available senior year. It is important to research your options and carefully select which classes to take. This article will discuss common choices students face and offer insight on how to make choices that are right for you.

Plan Ahead

As a freshman or eighth grader, look at the high school’s entire course catalog. Circle all courses that interest you and note their prerequisites (requirements for eligibility for a course). Use this information to plan out your schedule. For example, if you really want to take AP Physics, and its prerequisites are physics and pre-calculus, then you should enroll in classes as a freshman that will put you on track to complete first-year physics and pre-calculus as a junior.

As a junior, have a list of colleges you are considering and how they evaluate applicants. The majority of colleges look at a student’s senior year course load. This means no slacking off senior year! However, some universities, such as the UC’s, do not look at the senior year course load, making junior year courses and grades crucial. Tailor your class selection accordingly.

It is often touted that to be accepted into a top university, students must take every available AP. This approach oversimplifies the process. Colleges want to see a well-rounded student that succeeds in all classes. Taking five AP’s and getting B’s and C’s in all of them does not demonstrate this. It is better to reduce the workload by taking three or four AP’s and getting A’s in all classes.


Most high schools require at least three years of math, the absolute minimum you should complete.  To be a competitive applicant at any college, take four years of math through pre-calculus or trigonometry. For the students applying to elite schools, AP Calculus is a necessity.

Palo Alto High School (Paly) breaks down the math track in a simple way. As you can see, the math class you start with as a freshman affects what math you will be able to take as a sophomore, junior, and senior.


When choosing which science class to take, play to your strengths. Physics is the most math heavy, followed by chemistry, while biology requires copious memorization. If memorization is burdensome, take AP Physics or AP Chemistry rather than AP Biology.

Another aspect to consider is when to take an AP science. Traditionally, students take biology, chemistry, and physics before moving on to the AP’s. Cardinal Education recommends taking AP classes the year after taking the regular or honors class. This helps students retain information and lessens the amount of extra work.


Students often sign up for an AP history thinking it will be easier. History AP’s do cover the same material as other history classes; however, they go into much greater detail and often have a large workload outside of class. If you are considering an AP history, talk to the teacher and current students to get a reliable gauge of the class.


English AP’s are highly recommended because they improve analytical skills and prepare students for college-level writing and, tangentially, the SAT and ACT. The workload is usually similar to that of an honors English class, but the essays are graded much harder. If you are a strong writer, AP English is a must.


Fitting all your classes into your schedule can be a nightmare. Here are a few things to consider when rounding out your schedule:

  • Be aware of other time commitments. Realistically think about how much time you spend playing sports or volunteering and how much time you have to do homework.
  • Consider taking classes online or at a community college over the summer. This will help free up time during the school year.
  • Free periods are overrated. Most students have great intentions to work but rarely follow through.
  • Only sign up to be a teacher’s aid if that teacher is writing a letter of recommendation for you.
  • If PE is required all four years, ask if an after school sport or some form of distance learning can be substituted.

Choosing classes can be difficult. Be sure do your research by asking current students and teachers about challenging classes, enroll in classes that interest you, and maintain a balanced schedule in and outside of school.

Like what you see here? We are happy to permit you to use our material as long as you link back! Please refer to us as the Cardinal Education Blog.