Open letter to alumni and friends on Wake Forest’s new admissions policy making SAT/ACT optional

By Joseph A. Soares
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology
Wake Forest University (soaresja@nullwfu.edu)

As Wake Forest alumni, you know that we are a community that extends beyond faculty, administrators, staff, students and alumni to our families and friends. The quality of our intergenerational compact is annually refreshed by our admissions policies and practices. When we select our students, we are selecting the face of Wake Forest for today and tomorrow.

Wake Forest has taken the bold step of becoming the first national university to select its students with criteria that move us beyond the pitfalls of standardized tests. Like all very selective colleges and universities in the United States, Wake Forest has used the SAT as a key criterion in our admissions’ decisions for quite some time. We have always striven to select an academically excellent, multi-talented, and diverse undergraduate body. Yet as we have become more competitive within the top tier of America’s best universities, we have become increasingly mindful of the shortcomings of SAT driven admissions. We have become convinced that the SAT is a weak measure of academic ability, and when we rely on it we pay a price. By misevaluating our students’ academic strengths, we undercut our diversity and talent pools.

Events at the University of California between 2001 and 2005 made us aware of the inadequacies of the SAT. California was the last highly ranked national university, before Wake Forest, to distance itself from the SAT. Thanks to the University of California the old SAT with its verbal analogies was discarded by the ETS as of March 2005; California voted to discontinue using the SAT as of that date, and rather than lose its biggest customer, the ETS discarded the old version and created a new test.

California’s action on the SAT was precipitated by a request from its president, Richard Atkinson, for researchers on its Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) to reevaluate California’s criteria for selecting undergraduates. BOARS’s statisticians, Saul Geiser and Roger Studley, discovered that the SAT did not perform as advertised. It did not predict college grades.

Geiser and Studley investigated the role of the SAT in admissions by examining four entering cohorts, with an approximate total of 78,000 undergraduates, matriculating at California from 1996 to 1999. They found that high school grades (HSGPA) and subject specific tests, such as the SAT II, predicted college grades, but not the SAT. In two of the four years they researched, the SAT was not a statistically significant variable in their multivariate regression models for predicting grades. For the two years it did show a weak correlation, the SAT’s contribution turned out to be spurious. The SAT seemed to matter only when one did not include information on family income and parents’ education. Once socioeconomic status (SES) variables were made part of the regression model, the SAT contributed absolutely nothing to BOARS’ ability to predict grades for any of the cohorts under scrutiny. However, the inclusion of SES variables in the model did not have the same nullifying impact on HSGPA or subject specific tests, such as the SAT II; these continued to be statistically significant predictors of college grades even after one inserted family SES variables in the model.

In sum, California found that the SAT correlated with family income but not with college grades. Furthermore, California showed that high-school grades were the best predictor of college performance, and that the correlation of HSGPA with college grades grew over the course of the undergraduate’s education. HSGPA was an even stronger predictor of students’ college GPAs in their senior year than it was of their freshman grades.

After California, other universities joined the search to find alternative admissions’ strategies. The University of Texas adopted to very good effect a 10% solution; it admits everyone in the top 10% of a Texan high-school-senior class without any consideration of the SAT. Social scientists have drawn on the Texan experiment to establish that if we set aside the SAT, and rely on high school grades and class rank instead, we can get academically excellent and diverse students.

Large state universities are not the only institutions investigating this issue. Research on the role of standardized tests at elite private colleges has arrived at similar conclusions to those drawn by statisticians at California and Texas. My book, The Power of Privilege: Yale and America’s Elite Colleges (Stanford University Press, 2007) examines admissions from the perspective of top-tier private institutions. Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a review essay on four new books on college admissions, stating that, “Of all the authors, Soares is the best at explaining the statistical applications of the numerical measures used in the admissions process and why a student’s ACT or SAT scores are not good predictors of his or her freshman GPA at the most competitive colleges.”

For summaries of other reviews, please see: http://www.sup.org/book.cgi?book_id=5637%205638

The moral of this story is clear. The SAT is not a good predictor of academic performance. For too long, universities have used the SAT to keep up with the Joneses, unmindful of its effects on the talent stream.

Provost Jill Tiefenthaler’s notice announcing Wake Forest’s new policy mentioned the positive experiences of a handful of top liberal arts colleges with SAT-optional admissions for a number of years now. It is worth underscoring that Bates College found no meaningful differences in the college grades or graduation rates of undergraduates admitted without or with SAT scores, while Hamilton College found non-SAT submitting students had higher GPAs than their SAT-score-submitting peers. All SAT-optional top liberal arts colleges have experienced a jump in their application pool size, and have been able to increase their numbers of racial minorities and low SES students.

Making the SAT optional is a win-win situation for us. It allows us to tell the truth about the SAT: that it is not the gold standard for predicting college performance — insofar as any academic measure does that, it is HSGPA. And SAT “not required” admissions will give us greater social diversity and academically stronger students.

College admissions have never been, and likely never will be, exclusively determined by academic factors; many other valid considerations, from social diversity to special talents, enter into our decision. The academic variables we do use, however, should be good predictors of academic performance. Wake Forest is committed to looking at the whole student, beyond test scores, and our new policy empowers us to do that.


Joseph Soares received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1991. He was an associate professor of sociology at Yale University and a lecturer in Harvard’s Social Studies Program before joining the faculty at Wake Forest in 2003.

Categories: Admissions