How important are test scores in college admissions process?

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - The SAT college entrance exam has been a hot topic nationally as College Board officials announced the test would be updated for the first time since 2005.

The changes include making the essay optional, eliminating penalties for wrong answers and doing away with certain vocabulary words.

The changes are expected to be rolled out on tests in 2016.

The national attention the standardized test is getting brings about the question of how important standardized test scores are when it comes to applying and being accepted at certain colleges and universities.

Admissions officials at the College of Charleston, Charleston Southern University and The Citadel all agree the test scores are just one part of a larger formula used to determine if a student is right for the school.

"We do not look at the SAT in isolation, but rather include it as a part of the total admissions decision," said Debbie Williamson, vice president for enrollment management at Charleston Southern University.

Instead, schools focus on other factors to help paint a better picture of how successful a student was across his or her high school career, and how that could translate over to college.

"The choice of courses, the rigor of the courses and how well a student does in those courses is the actually the single largest predictor of academic success at the college level," said John Powell, director of admissions at The Citadel.

In addition, the admissions officers said qualitative factors such as leadership roles, involvement in clubs, volunteer work and other extracurricular activities contribute to determining if an applicant is a good fit for their school.

Don Burkard, the associate vice president for enrollment planning at the College of Charleston, said it is important for the public and students applying to college to understand the holistic approach many college and university admissions offices use.

"I think the SAT, ACTS in themselves - there's some misconception about that; that schools place more emphasis than maybe they do, in terms of the admissions process," he said."

"It's not as limiting as some people think in terms of their candidacy for admission," he added. "That clearly does not mean that they're not important, they are. But they're only one criteria."

When it comes to applying for college, Powell said academics and other activities can sometimes balance out a bad standardized test score.

"If an applicant meets all the other requirements - we're still going to take a very good look at that SAT and it's going to depend on where that score is. There's some give and take. The higher the academics, the stronger the academics - the more consideration we may give to a lower SAT [score]," he said.

Powell suggests students take either the SAT or the ACT in their junior year of high school so they have the opportunity to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and take the test again before the pressure of applying to college kicks in their senior year.

"I get concerned when I see students applying to college as a rising senior or they've started their senior year and they're just now taking the SAT for the first time," he said.

The SAT and ACT tests are typically offered about six times each year.