True or False: Tests Matter in College Admissions

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Byline: Tara Malone Daily Herald Staff Writer

Many suburban teens sharpened their No. 2 pencils for the SAT exam last week.

Thousands more hunkered down Saturday for the ACT, another exam required for admission to many colleges and universities.

Myriad Advanced Placement, or AP, and SAT II subject tests soon will follow.

This is not a battle of acronyms, but rather the pinnacle of testing season for high-school juniors angling for a seat in their college of choice.

Teens often spend the spring leapfrogging from one test to another, fraying their nerves and their wallets as they pay test fees that range from $29 to $82.

Despite the cost and strain it may cause, spring testing remains an integral step along the road to college, one teens best not shrug off, guidance counselors and admissions officers caution.

"It's a big deal," said Bob Burk, admissions director at Northern Illinois University. "You need to do well and you need to take them."

The more selective the college, experts say, the more test scores matter.

As more high schools offer college-level courses, drop class rankings and shift to weighted grade scales - where grade-point averages may eclipse 4.0 - teens increasingly look alike.

On paper, at least.

Scores on a national test offer one way for colleges to differentiate students, and, when push comes to shove, pick one over another for admission.

"It's the only tool that can guarantee consistency in the evaluation of a student's ability. That is one reason we like it," said Kari Gibbons, dean of enrollment at Lisle's Benedictine University. "We know a 16 is a 16 if you're here, there or anywhere."

Teens seized by angst, take note. Same goes for parents concerned their child has a pick of schools.

Test scores alone will not guarantee admission. They are just one ingredient in the cocktail of college admissions, experts say.

"It doesn't pay to disregard any part of the application," said Keith Todd, undergraduate admission director at Evanston-based Northwestern University. "A student with high scores shouldn't kick back and think they are going to be admitted."

The classes a student takes coupled with the grades earned and scores on college entrance exams typically drive admission decisions.

This is where college-level AP courses and exams come into play.

Taking an advanced American history class attests to a rigorous course load, which, in turn, boosts a student's standing in the eyes of a college admission board. In addition, a strong showing on an advanced placement American history exam may translate to college credit before a teen steps foot on campus.

Taking subject-based SAT II exams also conveys a level of academic rigor, advisers say. The results, like those on advanced placement tests, may steer a student's course placement during college.

"What they really are is a plus," Northern Illinois University's Burk said. "If we see a student has taken an AP or SAT II (test), that could make a difference to push them over the top."

Adding to test scores, classes and grades are a student's essays. Letters of support written by coaches, teachers or guidance counselors also carry weight, admissions officials say, citing the emphasis on each student as a person, not just a sum of numbers.

That is where high school guidance counselors, students and their parents want it.

"We want to put the onus on college admissions to really look at these kids," Buffalo Grove High School college counselor Scott Birtman said.

Though Buffalo Grove High and others in Northwest Suburban High School District 214 continue to rank students, many suburban schools are inching away from the system. Some contend rank hurts students by giving colleges one more number to judge them by. …