It’s an incessantly heard drumbeat: Your SAT and ACT scores are among the most important elements of whether you’ll get into a good college. It’s so important, in fact, that we devote loads and loads of preparation for the big test day. So how important is your SAT and ACT score in reality?

In a nutshell, standardized test scores do matter a lot, but not as much as you might think. It’s true that universities and colleges use standardized test scores as a way to weed our applicants—much like job interviewers use basic degree requirements to do the same.

At the same time, there is a commonly propagated myth that it’s a steep challenge to get admitted to college, and thus you should kill yourself hitting the books in order to get a near perfect score on standardized tests. This simply isn’t the case. Unless you’re targeting a highly selective Ivy League school, you’ll probably be admitted to at least one of the colleges you apply to.

So, while it’s important to have a solid SAT or ACT score, focusing laser-like in achieving a high score can put you at a disadvantage in other areas. Here is a quick roundup of other factors that matter just as much—and sometimes more—than your standardized test score for college admissions:

1. Think GPA, first and foremost

With all the focus on standardized test scores, it can be easy to undercount the critical importance of grade point average. “High school GPA matters. Four-year, long-term evidence of self-discipline, intellectual curiosity and hard work; that’s what matters the most,” said William Hiss, former Dean of Admissions for Bates College and lead researcher of a study that examined the success of “test-optional” admissions policies.

While standardized test scores are a snapshot of student success, GPA over a four-year high-school career shows how well a student performs in the long-term. It tells admission departments whether a student is truly ready for college-level work.

2. Extra-curricular activities are good. Be sure to pick the right ones

Admissions departments want to see a well-rounded resume of experience from students. Having a killer SAT score but an obvious lack of experience outside the classroom will be a significant hit. Demonstrate that your interests and experiences are broad.

If these experiences dovetail with the academic direction you plan to take, so much the better. Always think through the practical, tangible benefits of extra-curricular activities before pursuing them

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3. Have a solid supply of recommendation letters

Closely aligned with extra-curricular activities, ensure that you have several solid recommendation letters. These could be from teachers, bosses, or mentors—those who have some knowledge of your work ethic and skills

4. Demonstrate an aptitude for intelligent writing

No matter your major in college, solid communication skills are essential. Being able to write a cogent sentence, paragraph, and essay shows admissions departments two things—a clear-thinking mind and the discipline to put thoughts on paper in a way that others can understand.


In the end, preparing well for your standardized tests is worth the effort. But don’t get tunnel vision, believing that an astounding SAT or ACT score is the key to attending the college of your dreams. In fact, putting aside the SAT or ACT study book and getting some real-world experience through extra-curricular activities could be a better choice.

After all, the real world is far from a standardized test!