The SAT and ACT cause many high school students a lot of stress. While universities seldom admit they have admissions score cutoffs, falling significantly below the middle 50% range of admitted student scores deals a serious blow to a candidate’s application. Nonetheless, most American universities don’t place undue focus on any one element of the application. I remember being surprised how upfront about this fact my alma mater, Yale, was when I applied. In the supplementary essay instructions, I was informed something to the effect of “Sometimes we admit students with terrible essays and reject students with great ones. It’s hard to explain.” The same fact is true of standardized tests. Schools are transparent about the fact that they regularly open their arms to students with subpar scores and leave perfect score recipients out in the cold.
That said, standardized test scores are a pretty good proxy for a student’s admissibility to a school. The higher your score, the better your odds. This is because subpar scores are a rule-out criterion. If your scores are very low, admissions officers might discard your application. I like to think of high SAT scores like a great essay: it’s free points. It will probably help, and can’t possibly hurt.
However, when admissions officers look at your scores, they don’t just see a number. There are other important factors that are visible to them. Even if your superscores are great, the answers to these questions can raise serious red flags:
1. How many times you took each test;
2. What the progression of the scores looked like over time;
3. How the section scores were distributed in each of the attempts.
How many times did you take the test? Admissions officers will think it is weird if you take the ACT more than 3-4 times or the SAT more than 4-5, and extremely weird if you take a particular subject test more than twice. It’s not unusual for officers to look at an application and quip, “This student’s biggest extracurricular is standardized-test-taking!” Be wary of taking the tests too many times; admissions officers expect you to be a busy student with other things to do.
How did your scores improve over time? Don’t worry too much if your scores foundered or receded, but NEVER walk into the test unprepared. Sometimes students do this to get a “baseline” or find out what the test is like, but there is absolutely no reason to. Just take a practice test! Many universities require you to send all your scores, including that first attempt. It is a bad sign if it looks like you walked into the test completely unprepared, especially in math, because that is not what a conscientious and responsible student does. English and writing are a little different for international students (and please, prioritize a high TOEFL score, which can go a long way towards making up for a mediocre EBRW performance). If there is a very good personal reason one of your scores is much lower than the others, it’s a good idea to have your guidance counselor address this in his or her letter.
How are the section scores distributed? Do not make the mistake of focusing on a different section each time you take the SAT or ACT. Every time you walk into the test, it is important to give it your all. Your scores will naturally fluctuate and improve over time, but having a different standout score each time looks as if you can only focus on one subject in a given 4-hour period.
So what do you want to convey with your standardized test scores? You want to show improvement and demonstrate competence by falling within the admitted student range at your desired school. More importantly, though, you want to focus on the elements of your application that are equally important and more under your control, such as procuring excellent high school grades and glowing recommendation letters. Balance is something you will have to master as an undergraduate, so focus on the things that are specific to you: your original poetry, your musical performance, your work with the robotics team. Standout students come in all shapes and sizes, and your best self is a version of you. High SAT scores are important, but Hermiona consultants will work to help you pair them with great coursework and extracurriculars. That’s how you can be competitive at top schools!
Photo from CollegeBoard.