Listen, we agree that humans are not quantifiable, that your potential isn’t dictated by a number, and that standardized testing is sometimes fickle and frustrating. All of that is true. But while we’d love to be able to say that scores don’t matter and that you being a great person and a world-class tap dancer will get you into your dream school, they do matter. A lot.
SAT/ACT season is rough and the pressure put on students to do well is immense. Unfortunately, the pressure is there for a reason. While more schools are going test optional, the best of the best still require exceptional test scores. This is an emotional topic, we know, especially when your SAT or ACT scores come in the mail and you’re immediately looking for a place to retake them.
One of the ways that we combat the stress is to think about scores analytically rather than emotionally. Taking the SAT or ACT is sort of like a sports match. There are strategies, tricks, and ways to prepare. It’s important to push yourself to be your best, but it’s also important to understand your opponent and the overall game theory.
So here’s some game theory on the SAT and ACT that helps us understand why scores absolutely matter.
We’ve looked at how Yale breaks down applications before, so this time we’re going to look at another top-tier school: Columbia.
Columbia received 36,292 applications for the Class of 2020. Of those applicants, 2,193, or about 6%, were accepted. But the number of admits doesn’t really matter for us in this breakdown - it’s all about the number of applications that they received in the first place.
36,292 applications is a lot. A lot a lot. “Application season” runs from early November, when Early Decision applications are due, through Late March, when regular admission decisions are mailed out. That’s about 135 days. Subtract about 40 days for weekends, sick days, trainings, and the buffer period between when the majority of the decisions have been made and when decisions are mailed out and the admissions office has less than 100 days to plow through what would need to be at least 385 applications per day for just to make the deadline.
Now let’s say that they have maybe 15 people looking at applications on any given day, and that’s an optimistic number. That means each person has to read an absolute minimum of 26 applications per day, which wouldn’t be hard if that was their only job, but they have other things to do too and some applications command more time and consideration than others. Basically, the way that it breaks down is that it’s simply impossible for them to give every application equal time, especially when they are going to eventually except so few. To make it manageable, they have to come up with ways to filter people out right from the beginning.
Most schools won’t admit to having minimum test scores because there are situations where they will break their unspoken rules, but having a standard score necessary for admission helps schools immediately weed out people who they would be unlikely to accept. Again, at the risk of becoming redundant, we’re not saying this is necessarily fair, but it’s the facts.
For the Columbia class of 2020, the middle 50% of students scored between 2180 and 2340 on the Math, Critical Reading, and Writing sections of the former SAT out of a max score of 2400. So the middle of Columbia’s class is in the 96th percentile or above - the middle.
The middle 50% of the Columbia class of 2020 scored between 32 and 35 on the ACT out of a max score of 36. Again, that’s 96th percentile or above.
Having high scores isn’t a certification of brilliance, but it is a sign of preparation. Research has found that high standardized test scores correlate to communities with access to more test preparation and tutoring. Like we said, the SAT and ACT are games, and it helps to have a coach.
Scoring well on the SAT and/or ACT isn’t a golden ticket, but it does help you get through the initial admissions wall. Not meeting a school’s unspoken minimums doesn’t necessarily mean your application is going to get thrown in the trash, but it does make your admittance an uphill battle. This isn’t because they don’t want to give everyone a fair chance, it’s just the way time works. They’re racing against the clock, and so not everyone is going to get a full application review.
Once you do get over the test-score moat, you’re not in the castle yet. They take your essay, recommendation letters, extracurriculars, and class rank into account. But the essay is the college’s second round of defense, its curtain wall if you’re clued into castle architecture. This is why the essay is so important and why it’s imperative that students don’t lose track of the big picture. An application isn’t one piece, it’s a package. Your test scores are your first offense, but you’ll need a great essay to get admissions officers to open the gate.
If you’re curious about what a great essay looks like, check out these essays from some of our students. They helped them gain admission to schools like Columbia and Penn, and we think they’re pretty great.
Overall, we know that you’re more than your test scores, but colleges can’t take our word for it. Test scores matter and they’re a way to make sure that your application is read, so pull on your study cap, grab your favorite pencil, and get to work.
We write like we know what we’re talking about because we do. 100% of our students get into one of their top two schools. We’re pros at this, so drop us a line.