Why Doesn’t My SAT Score Match My Grades?

Guest blog post by James T.

My mother didn’t trust me to dress myself until I was in sixth grade. Even now, she’ll still remind me that my outfit doesn’t “match.” I’m unsure of what she means, but her obsession that my shirt and pants follow her aesthetically-pleasing color scheme underscores our intrinsic need to establish order and harmony. I frequently encounter a similar phenomenon in standardized test prep. Come two weeks after the SAT, unexpected results will always shock some of my students. Many find high SAT scores that don’t “match” what they might expect from their grades in school; a few unfortunately receive low scores that their otherwise higher grades wouldn’t predict.

why doesn't my SAT score match my grades

The goal of this post is to explore why your SAT scores might not match your grades. While I concede that performance in one’s classes can often relate to one’s performance on the SAT, I will examine the disconnects between the typical material covered by a school’s curriculum and the material tested on the SAT. I will then posit how colleges might interpret this discrepancy.

A cursory look at the SAT might offer some clues as to why your score might differ from your grades. The SAT’s English section covers reading comprehension and grammar rules; the mathematics section tests concepts covered in geometry and algebra. The curricula that most high schools offer juniors rarely corresponds to this material. Sure, the most astute students might recall the mathematics concepts of their earlier lessons, but the class material on the average high school junior’s mind almost never matches up with the SAT’s test material. Do you remember your junior grammar class, where you extensively reviewed the complexities of the em-dash? Of course you don’t. Similarly, analyzing the nuanced impacts that Keynesian thought had on Depression-Era economic policy (cough, cough, APUSH) or understanding that the mitochondria is more than the powerhouse of the cell (AP Bio) has little bearing on your performance on the SAT.

I believe mastering the material covered during your classes and the material on the SAT demands different techniques. These techniques are not always transferable: the process of elimination, for instance, will not help you comprehend Kafka’s Amerika. I find that students can improve their score on the SAT by recognizing and studying these newfound, essential test-taking strategies. It is this objective — developing the techniques unique to testing — that most often surprises those unfamiliar with test prep.

Acknowledging the disconnect between high school curricula and the material and techniques on the SAT only highlights the importance of preparing for your SAT outside of class. Just like your classes, performing well on the SAT is another learnable and teachable skill. Improving an unsatisfactory SAT score to match one’s grades thus requires that a student examine the material tested on the SAT, identify concepts or techniques that they either cannot recall or never encountered in their classes, and refine their study plans to directly address these areas of potential improvement.

Let us now imagine a scenario. A college admissions officer receives a file from an average student called Greg. Greg receives good grades, but earns a remarkable score on his SAT. What might this admissions officer deduce about Greg? I believe that Greg’s high SAT score despite his average GPA indicates his untapped potential; the admissions officer might flag Greg as a student who might benefit from the university’s robust educational resources. Let us now examine the related case of Greg’s peer, Joseph. Joseph’s grades are exceptional, but the admissions officer notices that his SAT score doesn’t match his otherwise immaculate record. What might the admissions officer conclude? In this case, a number of possible outcomes are likely. Many families experiencing this outcome fear the worst case scenario: the admissions office might interpret this low SAT and high GPA as an indication that Joseph may lack the diligence necessary to succeed on the SAT. I, however, doubt the validity of this claim. SAT exams are stressful, intense affairs. The admissions officer would likely examine Joseph’s situation to figure out why he has mastered his school’s curriculum but not the SAT’s material. I have frequently heard the term “smart slacker” used to describe this, but that term belittles students and underestimates the emotional and financial difficulty of standardized exams.

So, why doesn’t your SAT score match your grades? This discrepancy ultimately arises because of the disconnect between high school curricula and the SAT. The skills required for succeeding in most schools’ curricula are not often helpful for mastering the time-crunched SAT. Similarly, the complex material you’ll encounter in your classes rarely transfers to the commodified snippets of “knowledge” you’ll find on the SAT. While they may predict trends, grades are ultimately imprecise predictors of your SAT score. Perhaps even my mother would fail to work out a satisfactory “match” between these related, but fundamentally different, educational benchmarks.