How Important are SAT/ACT Scores for college?

Ever since I’ve known that I would have to take either the SAT or ACT for college, I was ready to put in the hours of work to get the highest score possible.

Once I finish Algebra 2 this year as a freshman, the SAT practice tests begin. (Some of you may think this is a bit early, but my high school requires us to take the SAT at the beginning of our junior year.)

This had been my mindset for a long time, so you can imagine my shock when I was writing my UChicago article, and they accepted a student who had gotten a 21 on the ACT that year.

If UChicago, the 6th ranked university in America, accepted that low of a score, I’m sure they’re not the only ones. 

After I calmed down, I realized there is a possible explanation for this. It was probably a world-class student that UChicago wasn’t willing to lose over a low standardized score.

What I mean by world-class is a student who excels in a particular area that there is a significant margin between her/his classmates. Example. One girl in my school is known as this bassoon prodigy.

Her parents always moved around the county so she could play in the schools with the best bands. She was offered admission to the Curtis School of Music.

For those of you who don’t know what that is, it is a very prestigious music school in Philadelphia with a mere 5% acceptance rate.

On top of that, she was a junior when she was accepted. Isn’t that crazy? Considering how good she was, I don’t think Curtis cared very much if she had the highest SAT score or whether she scored a five on the AP Physics exam.

The same applies to athletes. I don’t have an example from my school *no wonder, our football team sucks; everyone wonders why I have no school pride*.

The top schools want the best of the best in their schools, and since sports are not academically challenged, test scores don’t matter as much as nonworld class students.

THIS DOES NOT MEAN YOU CAN FAIL THE SAT/ACT. Even if you are a world-class shoebox collector, if you get 500 on the SAT, you’re not going anywhere.

Ok, so what if you’re not a world-class student? Like me. I haven’t written a revolutionary science paper or carried my soccer team to state three years in a row, Yet… I can’t get to a top school with a low score.

Even though your school administration tells you that your scores don’t define you as long as you tried your best, that’s a lie. Yes, of course, try your best, not your worst, for apparent reasons.

But the SAT/ACT is the chance for colleges to freely compare you to other candidates without other factors playing in. SAT/ACT scores are the only universal thing that colleges can use to judge knowledge students acquired at school. 

Compare this to say the number of AP’s a student had taken at school. You can’t fairly compare a student whose school offers 5 AP’s vs. a student whose schools offer 20 some AP’s.

Every school offers different colors and flavors of AP’s that it is another article in itself, but you know, just as an example. Anyways, every student in high school has taken all the same classes by the time the SAT/ACT comes around.

So if you’re not a world-class student and have low standardized test scores, good luck getting into college; I think that your SAT/ACT score is as essential as your essays. So my advice to people like me who don’t shine like a blinding diamond, your standardized test scores matter a lot. 

What would be the ideal score?

So this begs the question, what is the range that I should aim for if I am not world-class? I really don’t know, but let’s create a range. The top colleges vary in their average scores.

For example, Vanderbilt’s average SAT score for students admitted is 1510, according to PrepScholar. The way they calculate this by percentile. We’re all familiar with percentile. The higher your percentile, the higher ranked you are.

Vanderbilt’s 25th percentile score in math is 750, and their 75th percentile score is 800. In other words, the bottom 25% of the students admitted have a math score of less than 750.

And top 25% (which is 75th percentile) scored 800 or higher. The 25th percentile for English is 700, and the 75th percentile is 760; the average is 730.

Meanwhile, NYU’s average SAT was 1410. The average for math being 730, and the average for English being 680. Just like Vanderbilt, the score is calculated through the 25th and 75th percentile.

As for their ACT scores, Vanderbilt’s average is 34, and NYU’s average is 31 (Using the same percentile system as the SAT). The reason percentile matters are because you are put on this scale based on your score. The higher up you are on this scale, the better it is for you. 

I personally think that, throughout all schools, the 25th percentile and below are reserved for those world-class students. This means that if you’re not world-class, don’t aim for the 25th percentile number.

Any Advice?

What you should do is take a look at all the potential schools you want to go to. Out of all those schools, find the SAT/ACT scores for your hardest to get into school. The 75th percentile of those scores is what I think you should aim for. 

Ok, so let’s do a little wrap-up. If you’re a student that is being recruited for a sport or you’re somebody with this phenomenal talent that colleges are fighting over for, you can get away with a lower score.

This does not mean that you can completely slack on the test, but it gives you a little wiggle room. As for the rest of us, aim high. Higher than you would need.

SAT/ACT plays a significant role in this college process, and you want to maximize your chances anywhere you can. The SAT/ACT is not the deciding factor, and you won’t get denied entirely from a college solely based on these scores.

But remember, this is the one thing that they will freely compare you, so you want to be on the higher end of this spectrum. 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the College Reality Check.

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