The original purpose behind standardized tests like the SAT and ACT was to help universities assess and predict how likely a prospective student is to do well in college.
The ability of standardized test scores to predict future success is highly debatable. But at the very least, they still served to separate and sort students by perceived ability to a certain extent.
With the rise of the standardized test prep industry over the last few decades and so many students now employing outside help, perfect and near perfect SAT scores are so common that they don’t even serve that latter purpose of distinguishing between students.
In the last few years, many schools have already announced test-optional admission policies, and we’re likely to continue seeing more institutions do the same.
Your SAT score won’t get you into Harvard, but it could keep you out
Even if you have a perfect 1600 on the SAT (or 36 on the ACT), that will not be the reason you get accepted to a top university like Harvard or Stanford. Think about it. These schools receive so many applications each year. Almost everyone will have great test scores and grades. Do you think that will separate you at all from the pack?
Because of that, college admissions officers look at other things to distinguish between students, essentially making the SAT an irrelevant criteria.
However, there is one scenario in which your test scores could make you stand out (and it’s not in a good way): really low test scores. In that case, your scores would matter and they might hurt your application.
The bandwagon ruins everything
The fading significance of standardized tests is like the ebb and flow of marketing. At first, a platform is new and cool and captures people’s attention. Then the first small, brave batch of advertisers see the pristine opportunity and take advantage.
It’s like having Disneyland all to yourself, with no lines for any of the rides. This was Google AdWords in the early days, when ads were cheap and effective. Then when the pioneers tasted success, the rest of the brands all jumped in, ruining the experience for everyone.
Long ago, when test prep courses were non-existent or not as prevalent, the SAT and ACT represented an opportunity for a student to distinguish his college application from the pack. That no longer is the case, but that teaches us an important lesson we can apply to the college admissions process (and to many other things).
Use your time to discover and leverage the next untapped opportunity
All that said, here’s your opportunity as a student. Get a “good enough” score (i.e. good enough that it blends in with others’ and won’t hurt you) and get that out of the way quickly.
Use the time you save to find out where the newest opportunity to add value and distinguish yourself lies (and no, volunteering for two weeks in Africa doesn’t count; choose things that you truly like and can benefit others with), and use that to your advantage to show your personal side to colleges. While everyone else is still wasting their time and money on improving an arbitrary number that isn’t even that important to colleges anymore, you are busy improving yourself and using that to promote yourself as a great fit to colleges.