How important are high scores?

Posted on 9th September 2016

The entrance tests for US college - the ACT or SAT, and maybe SAT Subject Tests - tend to take up most time spent applying. It's therefore tempting to think that these tests are the most important part of an application, that the higher the score the better your chances of getting in, or that a perfect score will you get you in anywhere. This is not true.

This might sound strange coming from someone who has spent a good number of years helping students get very high scores in these tests, but the truth about these tests is more complicated than you might think. The SAT and ACT tests are important, but for reasons other than simply improving your ranking against the other applicants. In fact, perfect scores might even be to your detriment. Here are two facts to consider:

1) The tests are used as a filter.
The number of people applying to college in the US is increasing year on year. Some 20 million applied as an undergraduate for 2016 entry, and 93k alone to UCLA. With numbers like these, it's simply not possible for most colleges to look at your whole application holistically. They don't have time. So the first thing an admissions officer will look at is your SAT or ACT score. If it's way below what they'd normally expect then you can be pretty sure they won't look at the rest of your application. If it's somewhere in the middle, then they might take it conjunction with the rest of your application. And if it's towards the top end - over 32 in the ACT for the most selective colleges - they won't have any concerns about that test and they'll move on to the rest of your application.

These tests are therefore, in one respect, a way of cutting out people from the start who aren't at the right level. But a perfect score doesn't put you at any greater advantage than someone with say a 33 in the ACT. You're both through to the next round.

2) You could be doing something else with your time.
It's difficult to get perfect scores; it takes a lot of practice. Colleges know this, but are not particularly impressed by it, because they will quite rightly wonder why you spent so much time practising for boring tests when you could have been doing something more productive, like pursuing your hobbies or learning a language - things that will make you stand out from the others.

Harvard could fill all their freshman places each year with people who applied with perfect SAT or ACT scores, but they turn a lot of those people down. Why? Because they had nothing else going for them.

Colleges still use these tests not only for filtering, but because they indicate how much effort you're willing to put into something tricky. You can't cram for these tests: they take perseverance, and that's what quality colleges like. But a decent score is enough to show that - anything more and it doesn't tell them anything new.

So don't worry about getting super high scores. 32 on each section of the ACT or 750 on the SAT is amazing. Now spend your weekends doing something more fun!
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