SAT Scores Predict Student Success in College and Beyond

For some, it’s common sense, and for others, it’s an uncomfortable truth, but the evidence is clear: SAT scores (and scores on general IQ tests) are highly correlated with student success in college and beyond.

Writing in Slate, David Z. Hambrick and Christopher Chambris explain that SAT results are correlated with first-year college success:

The SAT does predict success in college—not perfectly, but relatively well, especially given that it takes just a few hours to administer. And, unlike a “complex portrait” of a student’s life, it can be scored in an objective way. (In a recent New York Times op-ed, the University of New Hampshire psychologist John D. Mayer aptly described the SAT’s validity as an “astonishing achievement.”) In a study published in Psychological Science, University of Minnesota researchers Paul Sackett, Nathan Kuncel, and their colleagues investigated the relationship between SAT scores and college grades in a very large sample: nearly 150,000 students from 110 colleges and universities. SAT scores predicted first-year college GPA about as well as high school grades did, and the best prediction was achieved by considering both factors.

The authors go on to note how the SAT’s predictive validity is not restricted to first-year grades but rather serves as a predictive indicator for four-year cumulative GPA:

In a four-year study that started with nearly 3,000 college students, a team of Michigan State University researchers led by Neal Schmitt found that test score (SAT or ACT—whichever the student took) correlated strongly with cumulative GPA at the end of the fourth year.

But that’s not all. SAT scores also predict whether students graduate from college. Hambrick and Chambris also note that the SAT’s graduate-school counterpart, the GRE, serves a similar predictive functin for graduate school success:

Test scores also predicted whether the students graduated: A student who scored in the 95th percentile on the SAT or ACT was about 60 percent more likely to graduate than a student who scored in the 50th percentile. Similarly impressive evidence supports the validity of the SAT’s graduate school counterparts: the Graduate Record Examinations, the Law School Admissions Test, and the Graduate Management Admission Test. A 2007 Science article summed up the evidence succinctly: “Standardized admissions tests have positive and useful relationships with subsequent student accomplishments.”

Perhaps MORE importantly, SAT scores predict success OUTSIDE of an academic setting. Top scorers are more likely to be in the top percentage of earners:

SAT scores even predict success beyond the college years. For more than two decades, Vanderbilt University researchers David Lubinski, Camilla Benbow, and their colleagues have tracked the accomplishments of people who, as part of a youth talent search, scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by age 13. Remarkably, even within this group of gifted students, higher scorers were not only more likely to earn advanced degrees but also more likely to succeed outside of academia. For example, compared with people who “only” scored in the top 1 percent, those who scored in the top one-tenth of 1 percent—the extremely gifted—were more than twice as likely as adults to have an annual income in the top 5 percent of Americans.

What About People Who Argue that the SAT and IQ tests Are “Meaningless”?

The people who argue that SAT and IQ tests are meaningless are blind to the evidence. They want to believe that everyone has an equal shot at success, because it’s consistent with American values. Just because you want to believe something, however, does not make it true. The predictive validity of IQ tests (and the SAT is pretty much an IQ test) is THE best-supported correlation in psychology. If you reject the validity of intelligence tests as predictive measures of success, you’re choosing to ignore the results of a century’s worth of scientific inquiry.

In response to people who deny the SAT measures anything, the Slate authors write:

But this argument is wrong, too. Indeed, we know as well as anything we know in psychology that IQ predicts many different measures of success. Exhibit A is evidence from research on job performance by the University of Iowa industrial psychologist Frank Schmidt and his late colleague John Hunter. Synthesizing evidence from nearly a century of empirical studies, Schmidt and Hunter established that general mental ability—the psychological trait that IQ scores reflect—is the single best predictor of job training success, and that it accounts for differences in job performance even in workers with more than a decade of experience. It’s more predictive than interests, personality, reference checks, and interview performance. Smart people don’t just make better mathematicians, as Brooks observed—they make better managers, clerks, salespeople, service workers, vehicle operators, and soldiers.

Intelligence Tests Predict More Than College and Life Success

Even more reason to educate yourself: high scores on IQ tests and standardized tests like the SAT and ACT are also highly correlated with other desirable characteristics. The Slate authors summarize the literature thus:

IQ predicts other things that matter, too, like income, employment, health, and even longevity. In a 2001 study published in the British Medical Journal, Scottish researchers Lawrence Whalley and Ian Deary identified more than 2,000 people who had taken part in the Scottish Mental Survey of 1932, a nationwide assessment of IQ. Remarkably, people with high IQs at age 11 were more considerably more likely to survive to old age than were people with lower IQs. For example, a person with an IQ of 100 (the average for the general population) was 21 percent more likely to live to age 76 than a person with an IQ of 85.

What About the Theory of “Multiple Intelligences”?

People who want to convince themselves that general intelligence doesn’t matter assert that there are “multiple” kinds of intelligence, such as “emotional intelligence.” This contention may be comforting, but it is not supported by the scientific community. All the other types of “intelligence” are highly correlated with GENERAL intelligence, making the contention that multiple intelligences exist meaningless. In other words, if you do well on the SAT or on an IQ test, you’ll do well on any type of test.

In a Psychology Today article, Scott A. McGreal debunks the myth of “multiple intelligences” put forth by Howard Gardner:

In fact, it is fair to say that among academic scholars who study intelligence there is very little acceptance of Gardner’s theory due to a lack of empirical evidence for it. A critical review of the topic by Lynn Waterhouse in 2006 found no published studies at all that supported the validity of the theory. Even though Gardner first made his theory public in 1983, the first empirical study to test the theory was not published until 23 years later (Visser, et al., 2006a) and the results were not supportive.

Further Reading

For more on how the SAT is a good intelligence test, and on how it is highly predictive of success in college and beyond (including health and longevity) consult this New York Times article by Hambrick.

What’s the Take-Away from All This Information?

The bottom line is this: intelligent people are more likely to make intelligent choices, and their knowledge and skills will make them highly successful in college and highly useful in the job market. SAT scores are highly correlated with student success, and because the SAT measures the same thing that IQ tests measure (general intelligence) the SAT is just as good a predictor at life success as IQ tests are.

Sure, much of intelligence is genetic, and there’s nothing you can do about that. What you can do is read, study, work hard in school, and take SAT and ACT prep lessons and classes to help yourself have as good a chance as possible at doing well on the SAT or ACT and doing well in college and beyond.

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That’s it! For more on the SAT, ACT, and intelligence tests, as well as a wealth of SAT and ACT prep tips, check out the rest of our blog. Looking for 1-on-1 ACT or SAT prep tutoring? Want to join an SAT or ACT group class? Contact us today!

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