Parent Guide: Does Your Child Need to Take the SAT?

The SAT was once as inescapable a part of the high school landscape as auditorium assemblies and #2 pencils. But at this moment, in the spring of 2023, it’s clear that the SAT’s place in that landscape has fundamentally changed—and is poised to change again. For many parents, these changes have led to questions about whether the SAT is still necessary and who might need to take the test.

The SAT: 2020 to 2023

First, a quick history of how we got here. In 2020 and 2021, the Covid-19 pandemic forced colleges to re-evaluate their reliance on SAT and ACT scores as a measure of college readiness.  For the Class of 2021, whose junior year was cut short and senior-year test dates were cancelled amid outbreaks of Covid-19, most colleges had no choice but to suspend SAT and ACT test scores as a factor in admission. At the same time, as the pandemic highlighted inequalities in American education, many schools began to wonder if the standardized tests were not just reflecting those inequalities but also deepening them.

In November of 2021, the University of California announced that it would no longer consider the SAT or ACT as a factor in admission. The University of California schools have instead become “test-blind,” meaning that even if students submit their SAT/ACT scores, the school will make its decision based on other factors.  After the University of California’s decision, other colleges followed suit with similar test-blind policies: notably, the Cal State system, Reed College, and the University of Washington.  However, the test-blind trend failed to gain much traction outside of California.

Most colleges and universities have instead embraced a “test-optional” policy. Among them are schools like Boston University, Brown, Bryn Mawr, Dartmouth, Drexel University, Harvard, Northwestern, Penn State, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, UPenn, Washington University, Yale….  (The list goes on.)  For these test-optional schools, students are not required to submit an SAT or ACT score but have the option to do so. If students submit their scores, the schools will use them as a factor in admission. In other words, students who achieve a strong score on the SAT or ACT can improve their chances of admission at these test-optional colleges.  At the same time, students without a strong SAT or ACT score aren’t penalized for that. Their application will be judged on other factors (like GPA, rigor of class schedule, high school’s reputation, awards and achievements, extracurricular involvement, college essay(s), letters of recommendation, etc.)

Test-optional schools frame their policy as a win-win for students.  For students who invest their time and energy in achieving a high SAT score, the benefits of that success increase their chances of admission. For students who struggle with standardized tests—or who experienced interruptions in their education—that fact need not count against them. They can invest their time and energy in activities or achievements more likely to make their application stand out. Certainly, speaking from my own decade of experience as an SAT tutor and test-prep consultant, I know students who would have benefited from this policy—students who excelled on the SAT Math but not the English (and vice versa) or gifted actors and artists who struggled with the material or the time limits. For these students, studying so intensively for an exam that didn’t come naturally to them caused a good deal of stress, and I believe they would have benefitted from the option to focus on extracurriculars and projects that they were more passionate about.

What SAT Score Do I Need?

If you are open to the idea of taking the SAT, you may be wondering, “What score do students need to impress test-optional schools?”  To find that score, you need to look at two data points: 1) the College Board’s breakdown of student SAT scores by year and percentile and 2) the specific college’s average SAT score for last year’s class. If you can achieve a score in the top 25% of SAT test takers nationwide, that is a strong starting point.  In 2022, students needed a combined SAT score of 1200 (600 EBRW and 600 Math) to reach that top 25%. However, for highly selective schools, you may need an even higher score to impress the admissions committee.

Let’s consider a local test-optional school: Loyola Marymount University here in Los Angeles.  This private research university accepts 46% of applicants. The average SAT score for their entering class was a 1296. Half of their successful applicants had an SAT score between 1250 and 1420 (US News Profile Loyola Marymount), with 25% above that range and 25% below. In other words, a student would stand a decent chance of getting in with a 1200, but a score of 1250 would solidify a student’s chances by raising him or her into the middle 50% range of admitted applicants.

Another type of test-optional school to consider is a highly selective public research university. Let’s look at the University of Michigan. It accepts 20% of its applicants. The average SAT for their entering class was a 1435. Half of admitted applicants achieving an SAT score between 1360 to 1530, with 25% above and 25% below that range) (US News Profile UMich). For Michigan, a student would be unlikely to impress the admissions committee with only a 1200, and would probably need a score of at least 1360.

Finally, let’s look at a test-optional Ivy League school: the University of Pennsylvania. Penn accepts 6% of applicants. The average SAT score for their entering class was a 1500. Half of their admitted applicants had a score between 1480 and 1570, with 25% above and 25% below that range (US News Profile UPenn). For Penn, a student would really need an SAT score of 1480 or above to impress the admissions committee.

To summarize, an impressive SAT score for a specific school should at least hit the range of that middle 50% of admitted students. (1250 at Loyola Marymount University; 1360 at the University of Michigan; and 1480 at the University of Pennsylvania).

Two important caveats. First, we’ve talking about test scores that will *impress* the admissions committee, not the minimum test score for admission. You might be admitted to these colleges with a lower SAT score—at least 25% of their students were!  But in this test-optional landscape, you want to have at least that school-specific middle-range score before choosing to share it with the schools. 

The other caveat is that everyone is always one year behind in the data. SAT scores change year to year, as do the scores that result in admission. For that reason, we can only say with certainty what worked for students last year.

Summary: Could I Benefit from Taking the SAT?

Does your child *need* to take the SAT?  Probably not. Very few schools require the SAT for admission. However, if you are seeking a merit-based scholarship or award, some do still require an SAT or ACT score.

But I think the more important question is “Could your child benefit from taking the SAT?” And the answer to that is yes. If he or she can achieve a score within the middle range of successful applicants at a school or in the top 25% of test takers, it sends a strong signal that this student is academically accomplished and a strong applicant.

At Write Start Prep, we can help you determine if the SAT is right for you and what type of test prep best fits your learning style. With more than a decade of experience in helping students to prepare for their SAT and ACT Exams and to plan their college essays, we specialize in student-centered test prep and essay consulting.

One Further Change

Finally, I mentioned one other change that lies ahead for the SAT. For U.S. students, the SAT will transition to a digital test in March of 2024. (For international students, that change is already here.) I will discuss this new, digital version of the test in a future blog. So, stay tuned. But, for now, keep those #2 pencils handy!