How Well Does The SAT Predict Undergraduate Performance?

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One of the most hotly debated topics regarding education in the United States is the use of the SAT, a standardized test that high school students take before applying to college. Though some schools eschew it, nearly all colleges in the United States require SAT scores with their college applications. Many people feel that the SAT—which features math, critical reading, and writing segments—is antiquated, and a poor way to measure a student’s future academic success. It is supposed to be the primary tool for determining how college-ready a student is, but opponents of the test claim that there is not a great correlation between SAT score and undergraduate performance. Here’s the answer to how well the SAT predicts undergraduate performance and why:

How Well Does The SAT Predict Undergraduate Performance?

How well does the SAT Predict undergraduate Performance?

The answer is, ultimately, not very well. Most studies show that the correlation between SAT score and undergraduate grade point average is minimal, at best. It’s not that simple, however, because colleges generally accept students from a relatively narrow range of SAT scores, meaning that it’s difficult to truly know how students across the SAT spectrum would perform at the same university.

Yet the Washington Post seems to sum it up perfectly when they say, “Significant research shows that SAT and ACT scores don’t really tell us anything meaningful about a student’s future, either academically or in the work world.”

In addition, current SAT scores show that less than 50 percent of high school graduates are “college ready;” while that term is up for debate, a good portion of those that are not deemed ready for college by their test scores still attend college, with many of them having strong success there.

At the end of the day, the main problem with the SAT seems to be that people value it too strongly. The difference between an SAT score of 2400 and 1000 can tell us a lot about two students. But the difference between 1900 and 1800 most likely cannot.

Why the SAT does not Accurately Predict undergraduate Performance

There are many reasons why the SAT fails in its attempts to predict undergraduate performance. One of the most glaring is that taking the SAT is very unlike studying in college. In college you have to go to class, motivate yourself to study, and write countless essays or finish problem sets. With the SAT, you fill out a multiple-choice question test for a few hours. While it is sometimes an indication of knowledge, the SAT does not properly reflect what it takes to succeed in a collegiate setting.

Another reason that the SAT is flawed in predicting undergraduate performance is because it is very learnable. To do well on the SAT you must have a unique knowledge and set of skills, which you can easily learn with books or classes that are designed only to make you do better on the SAT. In short, to do well on the SAT, you have to study the SAT, not study your courses. As such, research shows a strong correlation between household income and SAT scores; those who can afford SAT tutors for their children generally are rewarded with high scores.

The SAT still serves a purpose; it is not as horrible as some people make it out to be. But when it comes to accurately predicting undergraduate performance, it’s clear that we put far too much stock in the SAT.


Jerome Mortensen writes on education, test preparation, graduate school, the college application process, alternative education, gifted education and other relevant issues; to learn more about test prep check out Launch Education SAT test prep.

Image credit goes to sidewalk flying.