Throughout high school, students are made to feel as if a perfect GPA is the only way into college. The truth is more complex than that. While a 4.0 GPA can go a long way to getting a student into their dream college, it’s not the be all and end all. Most post-secondary schools look at a combination of a student’s GPA, SAT (or ACT), and extra-curricular activities. A strong SAT can compensate for a less-than-perfect GPA – and is easier to attain.
Each of the 4
in the United States treats a person’s GPA differently. A small number of schools, including Stanford
, say a person’s high school transcript is their most important credential. But most schools view a candidate’s GPA as only one factor, and almost no schools have a minimum GPA (not even Stanford).
Let’s look at Princeton
as an example of how Ivy League schools view GPA. As the top-ranked school in the country
, it’s no surprise Princeton admits only 5.5% of applicants. Candidates with a perfect, unweighted 4.0 GPA have an 8.1% chance of getting accepted, a 3.90-3.99 GPA translates to a 5.8% acceptance rate, and a 3.80-3.89 GPA to a 4.1% acceptance rate. From 3.79 down, differences in GPA no longer matter. In fact, candidates with sub-3.50 GPAs have a 2.6% acceptance rate, higher than candidates with 3.50-3.59 GPA, who have only a 2.4% acceptance rate. A candidate with a perfect GPA has only a 3.4-times better chance of being admitted to Princeton, than a candidate with a GPA of 3.38
SAT scores make a far bigger difference to a candidate’s chances of getting into Princeton. A candidate with an SAT score of 1067
, has only about a 0.2% chance of getting accepted. An SAT score of 1100-1250 gives a candidate a 1.1% chance, 1260-1370 a 3.0% chance, 1380-1490, a 4.5% chance, and 1500-1600 an 8.0% chance. In other words, a student with a perfect or near-perfect SAT has a 40-times better chance of being admitted to Princeton than a student with an average SAT.
We also looked at Ohio State University, the third largest university in the U.S
. by enrolment. Ohio State admits about 47% of applicants, but it turns out its view on GPA and SAT scores is similar to Princeton’s. In 2018, 36% of applicants admitted to Ohio State didn’t finish in the top 10% in their high school class, and 5% didn’t even finish in the top 25%. The average SAT score of people admitted to Ohio State was 1340, a score that corresponds to the 93rd percentile.
While schools don’t publicize exact formulas for admitting students, it’s clear high SAT scores do compensate for low GPAs. Most schools recognize that a student’s GPA is impacted by the school they attended. A recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute
found many high schools inflate their students’ GPAs. The SAT (and ACT), on the other hand, are standardized tests that allow post-secondary schools to assess candidates more objectively.
Every class a student takes during their four years of high school is factored into their GPA. Students dedicate enormous amounts of time to homework in the hope of maintaining a strong GPA. But at a certain stage, extra studying doesn’t have that much of an impact.
A 2015 study for the U.S. Department of Labor and Bureau of Labor Statistics
found that high school students spent an average of 6.44 hours per week on homework as a primary activity (combining homework with another activity) and 3.03 hours per week on homework as a sole activity. That’s 9.47 hours per week on homework which, assuming the high school year is about 36 weeks long (and excluding time spent on homework during vacation), means the average student spends 1,364 hours on homework during their high school years.
Given all those hours spent on homework, you’d expect students who put in more to get more out of it. But as it turns out, males who put in an extra hour per night on homework as a sole activity could improve their GPA by 2.5 percentage points on a scale of 100. The study found “no significant relationship between homework and any outcome measure for females.” In other words, it’s enough to combine homework with other activities and maintain a strong GPA. Spending hundreds of extra hours focusing solely on homework will only improve your GPA by a little, if at all.
SAT scores, on the other hand, are very dependent on practice hours – and 10 or 20 hours, rather than hundreds, will do. In 2018, students who spent 20 hours on an official SAT practice test gained an average of 115 points between the practice SAT and the real SAT, according to The College Board
, the organization that runs the SATs. Even students who spent at least six hours on an official SAT practice gained about 90 points. Depending on your practice score, a 115-point improvement is enough to increase your chances of getting into Princeton by 50% to 170%.
We know that even a few hours of SAT study can greatly increase a person’s chances of college admission, but is it worth the cost? If it gets you into a better school or better course and you end up getting a higher-paying job after graduating, then the answer is obviously yes.
For an instant return on investment, there’s the National Merit Scholarship Program, which gives scholarships to top-performing students in the preliminary SAT (PSAT). The PSAT
is a test taken by more than 3 million students each year that almost mirrors the SAT but excludes the essay component.
In 2018, the National Merit Scholarship Program facilitated $30.8 million
worth of scholarships for 7,563 students. Scholarships range from $2,500 across the length of a four-year program to $10,000 per year. In addition, many schools have their own scholarship programs for National Merit finalists. For example, Baylor
, offers scholarships worth $8,000 per year to $46,842/ to National Merit finalists who are admitted to the university and select Baylor as their first choice with the National Merit Scholarship. The University of Missouri has scholarships worth $3,000/y to $6,500/y for Missouri residents and $7,000/y to $15,000/y for non-Missouri residents who excel on their SATs.
The cost of an online SAT course pales in comparison to the potential rewards. Magoosh offers unlimited access to self-guided courses for as little as $79.99. Varsity Tutors has a marketplace of approved SAT tutors charging $50 to $70 per hour, translating to as little as $300 for six hours of tutoring. Kaplan, one of the highest-rated online SAT test prep services, offers full access to all its features plus one-on-one sessions with a tutor from $2,799.
In education, as in life, there are good investments and bad investments. Some high school students find maintaining a perfect GPA a breeze, but most students find it near-impossible to stay near 4.0 while participating in all the other activities associated with high school life. GPA is important, but fortunately it isn’t everything. A good SAT score can compensate for a less-than-perfect GPA, and fortunately it doesn’t have to break the bank in terms of time or money.