Score college admission without the SAT

By Kelly Kaufhold

Some students suffer through twelve years of education and three different schools, struggling to get good enough grades to carry them to college. Just when it's all coming together, when they're finally strutting into their high school senior year, three little letters can blow it all away - S-A-T.

Ask most survivors and they'll tell you the Scholastic Aptitude Test is four hours of test hall hell - a half-day horror that can unseat a decade of carefully laid groundwork. "I would have to say I don't agree with it because I did very well all through high school and then I didn't do very well on the test," laments Illinois State business senior Nicole Mosher.

While she's delighted with her four years at ISU, it wasn't her first choice. She was tripped up by an aptitude test. "I applied at U of I (the University of Illinois) and my GPA was high enough, but my ACT wasn't."

But not all schools use the SAT or ACT scores when considering granting the admission of a new student. "That's correct. We haven't required SATs ever, really," says Mary Backlund, vice president of Student Affairs at Bard College, located a few miles outside of New York City. "The reason for that is the SAT tells me how well somebody scores on an SAT, but it really doesn't tell me what kind of student you are."

Like a handful of private and religious schools nationwide, Bard does not use standardized tests. But that doesn't mean it offers an open door - Bard staffers have their own tools. "The transcript. What courses students studied, how they scored," says Backlund. "We do interviews, we do everything that normal people do, but the tests, they're optional."

That doesn't mean students who struggled through the Saturday morning mind marathons wasted their time. "I took SATs, yeah. I only applied to Bard," admits student Joe Elwin. "At that point it said they weren't required, but I took it anyway." The photography senior says he took the test for two reasons - because it gave him one more way to shine on his application and because he wasn't sure he'd get in to Bard. "Most people that I know think like I do, they take it anyway."

It's a good idea because most other schools require it. "All the Ivy's do," says Cornell University's Linda Mallett. "The SAT is a valuable tool to use as one piece of the admissions process." At some colleges it's the heaviest tool.

"We take about 60 percent of the students based on GPA and SAT's alone," says Mary Mehdizadeh in the UCLA admissions office. "Sixty percent we look at academics, GPA and SAT, then 40 percent we look at the highest [ranked] students, then we start to look at interviews."

Mehdizadeh says it evens the playing field. "The students come from different schools, so the same subject may be harder or easier in some schools. To see how much they really know -- they do standardized tests." Cornell's Mallett cites another reason. "We see more students that are home schooled. It does give a measure of how well prepared they are."

Since many students are stronger in one subject than in another, the scores will reflect both their strengths and their weaknesses. But there's no need to panic, according to Mallett. She says at Cornell and a few other schools, the different majors handle their own admissions, so if a student applies to the school of engineering they'll be judged more on their math and science scores than reasoning and verbal.

Prestigious schools like Cornell also look past the scores. "We look first at the high school performance," adds Mallett. "We ask if the grades are weighted or unweighted, how courses like the [honors courses] play into the students record. We look at how much of a challenge has been available and how well that challenge was taken on by the student." Admissions advisors at most schools also look at after-school activities like clubs and sports.

If a senior just can't stand the thought of a four-hour frenzy with a number two pencil, there is another option. "We have not used SAT scores," says Angela Sales of the City University of New York. "The city or state law of New York says if a student graduates from a public high school they can attend City University."

Rich Hasselbach explains, "Community Colleges have tended to be more of an open access," says the assistant to the President at New York's community college. "If their test scores haven't been good and they haven't been able to get into other schools, perhaps the institution of their choice, they can come to community colleges."

It's the same story at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, and most of the country's CCs. "We serve a non-traditional school population, mostly adults," says J.D. Leonard in Golden Gate's admissions office. "To require admissions tests would be pointless."

There are some tips students should be aware of. Some colleges accept both SAT and ACT scores, while others require one or the other. Students should research their top choices before they take a test by calling the school and asking for a pre-test guide, or by logging on to their Web site.

Even some students at four-year schools like the idea of skipping standardized tests. "Yeah, I think that's a very good idea," says Illinois State's Mosher. "Because then you can tell them who you are, not just fill in dots on a test."