New Developments in College Admissions

A fascinating piece from Inside Higher Ed and a podcast episode with Yale’s dean of admission point to challenges and changes to assessing the academic preparedness of college applicants.

Some parts of particular interest:

  • John Latting, Emory’s dean of admission and assistant vice provost for undergraduate enrollment, says, “We’re not as trusting, frankly, of GPA these days. Students are trying their hardest… but grades are definitely inflated and not as connected to true class performance as they used to be.”
  • Emory’s admission office is “weighing ‘external assessment’ more heavily than GPA, with a particular focus on AP scores.”
  • Latting also says, “While the lack of a score doesn’t raise immediate alarm, this year Emory admissions officers will be able to contact students who don’t submit an SAT or ACT score and encourage them to submit some piece of classwork they feel is representative of their academic interest and competency… We’re hoping that can give us more confidence to really lean into those applications and trust we’re making a good choice. We just want to be able to fill in some blanks.”
  • Speaking of blanks: More and more colleges are accepting certifications from to try to get some objective measures of academic achievement when other measures (like SAT, ACT, or AP exam scores) are not provided.
  • Admissions officers use common sense. Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, says, “We know that the students who aren’t submitting the standardized tests for our review process are the students whose scores are below our median.”
  • The stated purpose of test-optional admissions (to help disadvantaged students gain admission to colleges) might be backfiring at some colleges. According to Quinlan, he knows that Yale is “losing some of the really important data in our process” that would help Yale admit a disadvantaged student.
  • Quinlan also says, “It turns out actually that the SAT or the ACT is the single best predictor of a student’s academic performance at Yale and particularly the math SAT in persistence in some of our science majors… If the testing is there, it’s equally important as the transcript.”
  • Three colleges (Yale, Harvard, and Brown) have all publicly stated that SAT/ACT scores are better predictors than high school grades. Brown even stated that these scores are a “much better predictor” than high school grades.

Let’s dive into the implications.

Grade Inflation

John Latting (and pretty much everyone in education) recognizes the worrying trend: rampant grade inflation.

Grade inflation in U.S. high schools
Grade Inflation in U.S. High Schools, 1966-2022, “American Freshman Survey” from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA (1966-2019 and 2022 data)

To summarize the graph:

  • In 1966, roughly 20% of students going to 4-year BA granting universities had A-averages; 80% did not.
  • In 2022, roughly 80% of these students had A-averages; only about 20% did not.

Rising GPAs are not inherently bad: what if students are just more academically prepared?

But that is not what’s happening.

U.S. Average ACT Scores Trend
U.S. Average ACT Scores (1990-202020212022, and 2023 data)

Every standardized measure of academic preparedness has shown a historic decline.

Grades do not mean what they used to mean, and college admissions officers recognize that fact.

Weighing External Assessment

Even though Emory is test-optional, Latting is saying the quiet part out loud: external assessments (i.e. standardized test scores) matter. Not only do they matter, according to Latting, Emory will be weighing external assessment more heavily than GPA. I have actually never heard that from any college, ever.

And Latting points to Emory’s new focus: not just any external assessments, but AP scores. That is also fascinating given that AP exam scores have historically been used primarily for college credit and not greatly for admissions decisions (more info on how colleges use AP exam scores can be found here).

But, in an SAT/ACT optional environment in which grades are rampantly inflated, Emory’s admissions department is evidently looking for new, standardized ways of assessing academic achievement.

Filling In Blanks

For three years, most colleges bent over backward to say that all applicants, with or without scores, are evaluated equally.

That was, of course, false. Students with stellar scores always gained an advantage, so, no, students were not evaluated equally irrespective of scores.

But Latting has the integrity to be transparent and again say the quiet part out loud. When an applicant doesn’t submit an SAT or ACT score, that can leave a question mark in the application.

One way of filling that blank without getting the bad PR of going back to requiring SAT/ACT scores is to pivot to alternative forms of standardized assessments (especially for students who don’t have access to AP courses and exams). One such alternative to supplement a student’s application (i.e. to fill in blanks) is to gain certifications on academic subjects through, which has partnered with quite a few colleges (click to see how each school uses these certifications: MIT, University of Chicago, Yale, Brown, Vanderbilt, WashU, etc).

Below the Median

When some colleges profess that they don’t even think about why a student didn’t submit test scores, it’s always refreshing to hear someone tell the truth: in almost all circumstances, it’s obvious why scores weren’t submitted (it wasn’t because the scores were so high). And, as a recent report sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation points out, in the absence of test scores some colleges “attempted to predict students’ standardized test scores based on either data from previous cohorts or other factors in an applicant’s file.” So, without a score, many schools are making the obvious assumption that the scores are low, and some are trying to guess how low.


As Quinlan explains, a student coming from a disadvantaged background who has an ACT score of 30 (significantly below Yale’s median) is “actually transcendent [given the student’s background and context] and is a huge signal to the admissions committee [that this student is prepared].” But these students are often advised not to submit a score of 30 because it is below Yale’s average, and so, without that information, Yale is missing these students who would stand out from their contexts.

Single Best Predictor

Although much of the media coverage of the SAT and ACT is negative, Yale states that SAT/ACT scores are not only helpful but are the number one predictor of success at Yale. Quite the statement. Harvard too says the same on its admissions website: “SAT and ACT tests are better predictors of Harvard grades than high school grades…” (which means they are the best predictor).

My favorite candid take from a top school, however, is that of Duke:

Contrary to the supposed demise of testing, I can’t see top colleges removing their preference for an SAT/ACT score when these scores appear to become even more helpful relative to grades as grade inflation worsens.

The Trend

Granted, most of this (grade inflation, giving more weight to external assessments, or the uncertainty that can surround an application without a standardized test score) is not surprising. What is surprising is that two deans of admission were so honest. I wish more colleges were similarly transparent.

The changes that Emory is making to its college admissions process also reflect what we are seeing nationwide: a reversion back to using standardized test scores more heavily in college admissions.

The first colleges to quickly go back were some of the large public universities: they don’t have the time to dive deeply into the high school of each applicant and see what the average GPA and SAT/ACT score at that high school are, if the student took every available AP class, etc. For them, an SAT/ACT score is a quicker approximation of academic achievement than trying to ascertain how rigorous an applicant’s high school is and how well the student likely did relative to their peers there.

For example, at Auburn University (a large state university), 95% of students who enrolled submitted an SAT or ACT score. That’s higher than at Harvard (83% of freshmen submitted scores).

In fact, many public universities have higher SAT/ACT submission rates than higher-ranked private colleges (we put together all the SAT/ACT score submission data for the top-ranked 100 colleges here if you’re interested in taking a look).

The Takeaway

Why are colleges so stubbornly clinging to using SAT and ACT scores in admissions? For one, they are left with little choice when grades are so inflated (not to mention the fact that students took different courses, from different teachers, at one of over 20,000 different high schools in the U.S. that uses one of the many different high school GPA grading scales — so how else can they even somewhat accurately compare between applicants to see who is best prepared?). But, two, the preponderance of evidence covering decades of research and millions of students shows that SAT and ACT scores help colleges assess which students are most academically prepared to succeed at their institution. In fact, the relationship between SAT/ACT scores and success in college is one of the most well-established relationships in all of the social sciences (p.17 of “Measuring Success”, which is the largest ever aggregation of research on the use of college entrance exams).

In fact, in 2013, when Janet Rapelye, former Dean of Admissions for Princeton University, was asked by the New York Times if submitting both an SAT and ACT increased a student’s chances of admission, here was her reply: “And for us, more information is always better. If students choose one or the other, that’s fine, because both tests have value. But if they submit both, that generally gives us a little more information.”

The predictive capacity of SAT and ACT scores is quite surprising to most people. Aren’t these tests highly gameable? No, they’re really not. Consider this: only 6.8% of students whose parental income is in the top .1% have SAT scores of 1500 or above (p.88). If the tests were so gameable, we would expect 90+% of these students to have 1500+ SAT scores. Instead, 93.2% of them score below a 1500. The SAT and ACT are academic barriers to all students.

Can students overcome these barriers and increase their scores on the tests? Yes, absolutely. But barely from tips/tricks alone. In order to substantially improve on these exams, it takes a lot of hard work. Students have to legitimately become better students and gain knowledge and skills in grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, reading, and data analysis. That’s a vast amount of content to simultaneously improve upon. That’s why substantial increases are difficult and time-consuming — but achievable (like most things in life) with sufficient effort.

Is the effort worth the outcome? All students benefit academically from tutoring that improves their knowledge and skills in the core subject areas tested on the SAT and ACT (if a student has a very low score, then the tests are likely correctly identifying areas of academic weakness that the student needs to fix). Can a student with good grades still get accepted to a good college if they don’t have a good test score? Likely, yes. But, in practice even if colleges are still listed as “test-optional,” many of the best public and top-ranked private universities are returning quite quickly to effectively requiring SAT and ACT scores for admissions. For the most ambitious students, stellar test scores are no longer just about an advantage in selective admissions but again increasingly viewed as prerequisites to getting accepted.


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