Your GPA or your SAT scores: which is more important to college admission? We’re frequently asked this question by students working through the college process, and the truth is…it’s complicated. Both numbers are important when you apply to colleges but for very different reasons. So let’s go over why both add value to your application.
Importance of grade point average
It measures actual results
Being a good test-taker doesn’t mean you’ve mastered a subject; it means you can do well on test day. There are plenty of kids who don’t sweat taking tests—especially if they cram—because some people are natural test-takers, but others crack under the pressure. Besides indicating level of intelligence to a degree, they exhibit the ability to focus under pressure and to adapt. However, tests don’t lend well to students remembering that subject’s information going forward. With your GPA, you’re illustrating proven hard work over the years that includes tests, homework, and in-class efforts.
It shows what you’ve accomplished
College admission officials look at your GPA for patterns. If they see that you struggled early on but improved your grade point average significantly by junior or senior year, it gets their attention. They’ll take note of things like:
- Recognizing your weaknesses in class
- Putting in the hard work to overcome these weaknesses
- Successfully receiving higher grades because of the change
All of these elements showcase focus and determination (as well as intelligence) over your entire four years of high school.
Related: 10 Tips to Improve Your High School GPA
Don’t count GPA out
As you’ll see in a moment when we dive into the importance of SAT scores, there’s some obvious favoring in college admission for SAT scores, but GPA still provides value on your applications. Your GPA showcases the work you’ve actually accomplished over four hard years of study. More importantly, if you’ve taken AP courses, those will count highly when your transcript is analyzed. Your GPA works best when showing how you’ve improved and grown intellectually over time. If admission officials see either consistent strong grades or improvement and willingness to take challenging courses, then your GPA will really stand out when your application is compared against students with similar SAT scores to yours.
Importance of SAT scores
SAT scores are standardized
GPA is determined by individual high schools, but SAT scores compare you equally across the nation. With no standard metric to go by for GPA, grades are relative in value. An A in one high school geometry class in Chicago could be a B+ in a corresponding Manhattan-based class. Curriculums, instructors, and districts are not equal across the board in secondary education. (Not to mention, some schools inflate grades in order to raise the overall class GPA in order to appear more competitive and attract higher-quality students.)
SAT scores, on the other hand, are derived from the same test administered to everyone. There are no higher- or lower-level tests given out based on demographics, education, etc. Your final SAT score reflects your knowledge against students across the nation tackling the same questions and subjects. College admission officials place more trust in that score because they know it’s been impartially generated.
The SAT aptitude reputation
The SAT is meant to measure intellectual aptitude, and admission officers value intellect in applicants, which is why they tend to favor good SAT scores. Because of that fact, there is an unfair weight placed on SAT scores when measured against your GPA, which should also hold high value. Here’s how to look at it:
- Example A: A student submits a 1530 score with a 2.5 GPA. An admission officer might say the student is obviously bright but likely unchallenged in school. That lack of challenge means the student will probably shine when placed in a college environment.
- Example B: A student submits a perfect 4.0 GPA but only a 1250 score. That same officer could argue that the student’s transcript is suspicious because a GPA like that should suggest an aptitude for doing well on the SAT too.
While this isn’t always the case, too often SAT scores will come out a little ahead of your GPA.
Admission counselors want classes with high SAT scores
Unfortunately, college admission decisions aren’t always about the student, and sometimes it comes down to marketing. Every college admission board is looking for student applicants with high SAT scores. Why? Because their incoming class’s average test scores will be boosted. That boost makes an institution appear highly selective compared to other schools, especially in-state competitors. High selectivity also brings other benefits to a school, like:
- Attracting naturally stronger applicants
- Attracting additional funding
- Boosting brand image and reputation
Just like businesses, colleges and universities often compete for the highest-value applicants to boost their bottom lines.
Related: How Are Standardized Test Scores Used in Admission?
Whether you’ve got a stellar GPA or kill it on the SAT, both are very important measures of your intelligence, abilities, and potential success, so do your best and showcase that hard work for a great college application.
Try one of Prep Experts’ SAT prep and ACT prep courses today, and get more advice in our Test Prep section.