SAT Scores and Soft Skills: What’s More Important?

My oldest son, Jonah, finished his political science major at Rutgers, and is knocking off the last couple of classes in a minor in environmental studies. He’s close enough to the finish line that he plans to juggle a real job with his remain classwork. Jonah hopes to find a sales and marketing job in one the big industries here in New Jersey – technology, pharmaceuticals, or green energy. 

Over breakfast this morning, I helped prep him for his first job interview. I told him to emphasize his customer service experience at his previous jobs and the unique job preparation that comes from being a liberal arts major, like writing and thinking skills.

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36 thoughts on “SAT Scores and Soft Skills: What’s More Important?

  1. I think you might mean pharmacology and not pharmacy, unless J is actually considering the medicine-adjacent path of pharmacy.

    My kids’ K-8 did a pretty good job, I think, of teaching social skills as part of the Social Emotional Learning curriculum (and, I even remember a couple of extra-curriculars in our area teaching “Emily Post” style manners). The HS my son went to tried to do some SEL education through the first year health class, but I know less about its effectiveness.

    I do think people who are naturally socially savvy (often educators are) are getting better at understanding other behavior and more explicitly instructing (which does not include, saying “how would you feel if someone called you a name” to children).

    Excited that you’ve found a placement for Ian that you’re excited about!


  2. I’ve been teaching a course for juniors and seniors on transitioining from college to career…it’s part self-help group, part professional writing course (they develop their resume and a cover letter targeted for a specific job or internship they’ve identified for. While it’s only a short winter course, I really value the time I get with students to have conversations they need. It helps them tease out some of the skills they’ve learned in jobs they consider too ordinary to mean much and also helps them connect some of the soft skills that cut across courses to their other experiences. I wish we had more of that woven into the curriculum, but I’m really glad I have the chance to have this experience with sutdents.


    1. These “professionalization” classes are a pretty common thing at our university (regional public). I’ve been on various curriculum committees for the last 15 years and at first there was hesitation about giving credit for non-academic courses like this – this kind of work seems to fit better into a career center, but some career counselors are overtaxed, or not that great, or just don’t have the knowledge to figure out how to help students fit a particular academic path into a letter/resume that will help them get the job they want. Sometimes they are offered as required “zero-credit” courses: meaning the department just figures out how to cover them without paying someone to teach (or the chair teaches it), and the students do not have to pay for it, but they have to take it.

      In my dept, at first this was part of a senior capstone course – the senior major meets with the professor a couple of times to talk about job interests, and how they might build a resume to highlight what they’ve done in their program (or even use the senior capstone project explicitly as something to highlight as they apply for jobs). Recently we added a course to be taken in the sophomore or junior year that doubles as a research methods course and a professionalization course.

      I’ve looked at other universities’ approaches to this and a number of them do transitional “what did you learn and what’s next” type courses. Not sure exactly how common it is; maybe Rutgers is an anomaly.


      1. This course grew out of a little unit I started squeezing into senior seminars (on resume writing) that I construed almost as a graduation gift to the students, since the resume writing was never really part of the content of the course otherwise.


  3. That’s super nice that you have that course and are supporting students like that. I’ve heard from a number of students that their colleges’ career centers are underfunded and staffed with minimum wage students. This is yet another area where students with professional parents have a MASSIVE edge over first gen students.


  4. The college board report on SAT optional admissions for the 2021-2022 year is out.

    I’m wondering about Linked In. I saw a linked in profile for a high school student (senior, will be doing a gap year, mother is a pro marketing/analyst type person). It was good, but annoyed my rising college freshman, because he was annoyed by the spin. I was pointing out that its not spin if it really details your skills. And describing those soft skills accurately can really help people find matches.


    1. Sometimes skills aren’t something that can be quantified. Sometimes spin IS the skill. Scratch that. Usually, spin IS the skill.


    2. bj said, “Hmh, and now this conclusion on twitter by Ethan Mollick, “Cheap talk (self-promotion by asserting you are good at something without evidence) gets you chosen as a leader. ” from this paper:”

      In our family, we love the (perhaps apocryphal) story about a study of whether or not people would allow others to cut in line at a copy center under various circumstances. Apparently, it worked really well to say “Could I cut in? I need to make copies.” to a line of people, all of whom were probably there to make copies!

      Confident assertions will get you places!


  5. I heard from college admission people and from parents that the whole testing optional thing was buillshit. Grades were so inflated during the pandemic, because everyone was cheating, so the colleges needed SAT score more than ever.

    Tough year to get into the elite colleges, because the gap year kids doubled the number of college prospects.

    Also, that info about colleges sucking (in general) with post-college support came from an interview with a guy at Georgetown, who specializes in this stuff.

    I should write a whole post on Jonah’s job entry… While Rutgers totally sucked at the post-college employment thing, Jonah lives in a well connected community. A neighbor is going to hook up Jonah with his dream job, after he completely finishes his degree and gets a little more experience this year.

    The resume stuff is really different from the old school, if you’re applying for jobs on Indeed and on other search engines. You have to SEO the resume to get found. I’ll write about it next week. Today is a day off.


    1. I’ve heard the same thing about the optional testing thing. Selective colleges publicly dropping the tests meant more students applied, because they thought they might have a chance with good grades but no scores. Of course, that overloaded the system. It does open a door for hyper-connected applicants to get in, I suppose.

      Companies are using AI on applicants, at least in very large companies. So the weed-out round is handed over to algorithms.

      Note that there are many articles saying that it reduces discrimination. How would they know? It’s an assertion.


      1. If you’ve time to spend watching youtube, note that some skills are so valuable, automated systems will pester people, despite attempts to discourage them:

        Now, the author of that piece, Doug Wreden, does have a computer science degree, and he’s under 50. So the big data systems are tagging him as someone who could do the job.


      2. Older kiddo complains about this pestering as well, and she is not a CS major.

        She’s also still at the stage where she thinks everybody who might offer to pay her is evil (non-evil people don’t have money, hence 3 internships paid for by not-for-profits; yes, we ask her where that money comes from ultimately. So, everybody is a pesterer (not-for-profits only pester at higher levels).


    2. I never knew the resume stuff in the old days, either and am really interested in what the online/screening/pre-test versions look like for entry level employees.

      It’s still unclear what my kiddos are going to do after college (rising freshperson checked *all* the boxes, when asked whether he wanted to do engineering, teaching, medical school, law school, dental school on his entry survey). And, I feel like I know how to advise on the post-college school thing, but not at all on job searching.


      1. bj said, “It’s still unclear what my kiddos are going to do after college (rising freshperson checked *all* the boxes, when asked whether he wanted to do engineering, teaching, medical school, law school, dental school on his entry survey).”

        I hear you. I have a rising high school senior who is interested in chemistry research, computer programming, and pre-med, but is often most interested in the scientific field that he last studied. I know it’s a good problem, but he’s going to need a lot of college coursework to sort this out and maybe figure out how to combine some or all of these interests.

        The rising college junior figured out over the course of the past year that she’s more interested in her math than her classics, so that’s a win. Not that there’s anything wrong with classics…but it’s a more competitive field.


    3. MIT announced that they needed the scores and plan to require them going forward. Caltech just recently announced a continued moratorium on requiring scores. Caltech does get much fewer applications than MIT (for a class >> more applications, but enrolled just a few more students.

      I still haven’t seen a good analysis of whether not having scores resulted in students struggling after being admitted. MIT implied that they did, that the required math/physics curriculum meant students who weren’t adequately prepared struggled with the demands. But, they didn’t present data.

      The process does seem to have become much less predictable, but I don’t have data on that either (and, the process was already pretty much unpredictable at the Ivy+ schools, anyway).


      1. Ooh, you beat me to it! another magnum opus from Opportunity Insights:

        But, I don’t think Jonah is the data point, exactly. I do wonder how well off kids’ trajectories are influenced by friendships with even richer people — first noted by me when my kiddo went to a summer camp where she encountered a expat student from the global cosmopolitan rich crowd who told here broad friend group (15 year olds!) that if they posted a request for donations for a charity to Facebook, she could be counted on for a donation in the $1K range.


      2. Oh absolutely. Thanks for those links. Even though Jonah went to a public college, and had less handholding w/the job/internship stuff than his cousins who have had plum internships handed to them by their $85K college, he comes from a community that provides that same sort of support. UPM people take care of each other.


    1. Long ago I applied for a refinery laborer job and got refused because I had done too well on the test. Same reason: they wanted guys who were in for the long term, and they were sure wouldn’t. They were, of course, exactly right.


    2. We’ve got a long-term unemployed problem in NZ. With around 100K people on the ‘job-seeker’ benefit – these are not people who have a disability, or are in any form of training – and, in theory, should be actively seeking work. There are some people in that total who are only available for part-time work – but that’s not a barrier, currently – firms are happy to employ people for any hours they can do.

      At the same time we have firms literally desperate to hire workers – zero experience or qualifications required – basically they’re looking for a warm body, and are prepared to do whatever on-the-job training is required. This is mostly in response to a radical change in NZ immigration policy, which has just shut the door to entry-level workers coming from overseas.

      Restaurants/cafés are closing 1-2 days a week, as they can’t get the staff. Not just front-of-house (which does require customer-facing skills) – but also dishwashers and kitchen hands. I decline to believe that people don’t have the skills required to wash dishes!
      Admittedly, these are less-attractive working hours and conditions – but the minimum wage is over $21/hour – and lots of these places are offering $26+ for unqualified roles – just to try and get the staff.

      If you’re looking to build a blue-collar career – you can pretty much write your own ticket into an apprenticeship – getting paid for your work and getting paid for further education. Tradies after a year or so are well over $30/hr. – and it just goes on up thereafter. You do need to have a basic level of literacy – but there are pre-apprenticeship courses to get people over the line.

      If you want white-collar work – pretty much everywhere has entry level positions – with lots of training/education opportunities built in. If you’ve got even the most basic of computer-software skills, they’ll roll out the red carpet for you. My 14-year-old has shown me job ads for entry level IT jobs, with salaries of $45/hr, which he has the skills now to do (server management, etc.), just from gaming and programming for fun at home.

      It’s at the point where university enrolments are dropping – because people have so many job opportunities and chances to build a career first – before potentially going to uni when they actually know what they want to do. Vocational courses (Law, Medicine, Nursing, Teaching, Engineering, etc) are still attracting students – but general ones (BA, etc.) are really dropping away.

      We have a rising crime rate – ram-raids on shops for alcohol, cigarettes, jewellery, etc. – with teens being the front end (no doubt egged on by older criminals, who are happy to dispose of the loot); because our court system basically doesn’t do anything to deter under-18-year-olds from criminal activity. Stealing is seen as a more attractive ‘job’ than actually working for a living.

      We have a significant and growing truancy rate – and people are starting to point out that this is the next tranche of ‘unemployables’; both because they don’t have basic literacy skills, and because they have no discipline (getting up and going to school each morning, is pretty good training for doing the same for a job).

      We’ve had 5 years of a left-ish government, who’ve ‘invested’ in people to help them make better choices – and the problem has doubled. There’s a lot of sentiment that it’s time for some tough love.


      1. Lots of opportunities for those with a pulse and, at the same time, crime, truancy, and unemployability for large numbers of others. I think the same trends are happening her in the US, but at a lesser degree. These are signs of growing inequalities and a hollowing out of the middle. It’s tragic.


  6. As the mom of a rising high school senior, I’ve gotten into reading reddit’s Applying to College forum. What Laura and bj say tracks with what I’ve read there. People are apparently doing more shotgunning (applying to a lot of colleges), which drives up the volume of applications, which makes the whole process much more chaotic and unpredictable.

    I’ll also note that the first couple pandemic years were also really hard to do normal extracurriculars, so a) a lot of kids wouldn’t have normal extracurriculars and b) there’s a bigger possibility that their extracurriculars were kinda sorta fake. Normally, colleges decide based on grades, test scores, extracurriculars, recommendations, and essays. If grades are inflated, test scores are optional and extracurricular opportunities collapsed for a year or two–that doesn’t leave a lot to work with. And, of course, if you stop doing an extracurricular, it’s harder to get back into it. (A lot of kids’ music and sports participation must have been discontinued during the pandemic.)

    On a different note, while I sometimes wonder what the SAT verbal actually measures, I am increasingly convinced (based on my kids’ experiences with college classes) that there’s no way in heck that kids are going to do well in college STEM if they can’t grind out a decent math SAT score. People talk about “not testing well”–but the problem with that complaint is that college STEM courses involve being tested over and over and over again.

    I do feel that it’s a real objection to the SAT math section that it’s too low level–there’s not enough room at the top to distinguish high-scoring kids. The college junior and I have discussed this, and we agree that AP exam grades are a lot better measure of college preparedness than the SAT. Unfortunately, a lot of AP exam grades aren’t available to colleges at admission time…


    1. ok, i went to look at the reddit forum, cuz, is that where the cool kids are hanging out instead of college confidential?

      and the second thread I saw was

      “Are Caltech admits mostly recruits?
      Pretty much everybody from my school who has gotten into Caltech played sports. ”

      and now I am just confuzzled.


      1. Reddit’s Applying to College forum is mostly a combination of a) really cool kids and b) insanely ambitious, stressed-out kids, many with Asian parents who won’t understand why they aren’t going to Harvard/Yale/Princeton. They have a couple of admissions officer adults who post from time to time. I like the essay discussions, too, although it seems like just about any essay idea you might have is already a cliche. *sigh*

        On Wednesdays, there’s a joke post day, which is really funny.

        I glean various details from the forum and share them with kid, but I don’t want kid on the forum, as those kids are operating under incredible pressure.

        Personal note: My kid just filled out his early decision application for Hometown U. today.
        There are still a lot of odds and ends to deal with, but we are underway. Onward!


      2. Cranberry said, “Online discussion blogs share and spread rumors. It can lead to pressure. (I am aware of the irony of posting this opinion on a blog.)”

        Yep. And the group average is very unlike the real life average for stuff like grades, SAT scores, extracurriculars, etc.


    2. Students who are not “high scoring” in the tests can be well prepared for college. There’s a difference between being admissible in the overall group of college applicants and standing out in MIT’s applicant pool.

      AP exam grades DO NOT distinguish the top kids in calculus. See the Calculus BC score distribution:

      However, I have the impression that many applicants to high level tech schools these days have other ways to demonstrate math and engineering schools, such as competitions like Math Olympiad and robotics competition. So it isn’t as if CalTech and MIT can’t find mathy kids.

      The problem is likely determining the floor for math skills for the class. As for Caltech, they admit 4% of their applicants, but only 53% accept the offer of admission. For MIT, it’s 4% and 86%, on a much larger pool. So dropping achievement test scores allows them to magnify the size of the pool. Not unconnected, they’re introducing a new REA (Restrictive Early Action) program. The restrictions are: Students who choose to apply to Caltech REA this fall may not apply Early Action nor Early Decision to any other institution with the following exceptions:

      An institution outside of the United States;
      Any public institution that has a nonbinding admissions policy, such as the University of California system;
      Institutions with a nonbinding rolling admissions process;
      If a student is deferred admission after applying REA to Caltech, they may apply to another institution’s Early Decision II program. If they are admitted to that institution’s Early Decision II program, they are required to withdraw their application of admission to Caltech.

      MIT allows early application, without restrictions.

      So, CalTech and MIT are competing for the same students. If admitted to both, it seems more choose MIT.

      It’s a variation of the admissions system introduced by Tufts, whereby they managed to find kids who really want to attend Tufts, rather than only the kids for whom Tufts was a back-up for Harvard.


      1. As a side note, the score distributions for English, History and Social Science AP exams are stunning in comparison to the STEM subjects. I believe it reflects the influence of too little reading. I have no idea how one might solve that.

        A good start, in my opinion, would be to limit the number of AP exams a student is allowed to sit. Yes, yes, it’s controversial, but more sleep and more time to study could help the students learn something.


      2. Cranberry wrote:

        “However, I have the impression that many applicants to high level tech schools these days have other ways to demonstrate math and engineering schools, such as competitions like Math Olympiad and robotics competition. So it isn’t as if CalTech and MIT can’t find mathy kids.”

        Eh, that’s mostly fancy suburban high school or plugged-in UMC family stuff.

        Plus, there are probably some regional factors. I’ve never heard of math olympiad in our area, and we are a mathy family with kids in a good private school.


      3. Cranberry said, “A good start, in my opinion, would be to limit the number of AP exams a student is allowed to sit. Yes, yes, it’s controversial, but more sleep and more time to study could help the students learn something.”

        My oldest’s elementary school pal (a Korean-American girl), took 8 AP courses and 10 AP exams her senior year at a fancy suburban high school. She got into Princeton, but it nearly finished her off.

        I do think (based on my kids taking 2 AP courses at a time max) that AP courses have got to be a question of diminishing returns. My middle kid took AP Chemistry and AP Computer Science last year, and there really wasn’t a lot of time for anything else besides that.


    3. The SAT Verbal used to veer in the direction of identifying kids who have large vocabularies (which indicates a good high school education) but who also use their vocabularies with great precision (which indicates the same, but also to my mind innate precision of thinking). And re SAT Math — I agree that it doesn’t identify really high-flyinbg kids. I did very well on it, and 5 years later without having taken any math at all in the interim, did very well on the GRE math section. I am not at all “mathy,” but I was a very conscientious and organized student.


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