With the recent trend of rising application figures and declining admissions rates, the college admissions game has increasingly become one of attrition. That is to say, college admissions counselors get so many excellent applications, that with any given applicant above a certain standard of holistic quality, they are looking for reasons not to let you in so as to pare down the list of accepted students and meet class-size quotas. So, once you meet the minimum thresholds for a college’s entering class, it becomes a matter of making sure that your application is devoid of factors that will keep you out of a university. Standardized test scores are one of those factors. Your test scores won’t get you into any school, but they can keep you out.

Now for any given university, there is a certain threshold SAT score above which you can feel confident that your test scores are high enough to ensure that test scores won’t deny you acceptance. That threshold tends to vary based on the selectivity of the school, as well on several other factors including race, financial circumstance, resume, and others. However, as a general rule of thumb for elite private universities (roughly the top 20 US News national universities, top 10 liberal arts colleges) as well as specialized programs (such as accelerated medicine programs or the Business Honors Program at UT Austin), the target score is a 2300 or above. For the next set of private schools (top 50 US News national universities, top 30 liberal arts colleges), so called “Public Ivies” like the Universities of Michigan and Virginia, as well as public school honors programs, the ideal target is a 2200 or above. As you keep moving down the list, the threshold scores decrease roughly in increments of 100 points – to 2100, 2000, 1900, so on and so forth.

This leads to a second important point – SAT scores, and more importantly SAT score improvements only matter in those 100 point increments. What this means is that you should retake your SAT only if you can jump up one of these tiers – otherwise, your score improvement. Psychologically, a school will value a 2310 more than a 2290, but the same does not really apply to a 2290 vs. a 2220. You should only retake the SAT if it allows you to jump up a tier – otherwise, it is mostly wasted effort and not worth the exam fee or time commitment. The same principle applies to the ACT with writing – elite schools require a 35 or 36, and the score tiers change in increments of 2 (i.e. 35/36 is the top tier, 33/34 is the next tier, so on and so forth)

If you already have a good SAT score, then taking the ACT as well has no advantage. However, if you find yourself struggling with the particular set of knowledge or skills required to score well on the SAT, then the ACT can be a good alternative. The curve on the ACT has not grown difficult as rapidly as that on the SAT, which is beneficial if you tend to make one or two stupid mistakes on the SAT Math section, which now requires a student to not miss a single question in order to score an 800. The flip side, is that the ACT is much more knowledge/ability driven; it’s a harder test to strategize for beyond doing loads and loads of practice. With the SAT, because there’s so much more literature available for SAT preparation out there, it’s easier to add incremental points to your score. On the SAT, the first 2000 points come from ability – the remaining 400 are strategy – which is relatively easy to learn with the right teaching. On the ACT – more of your score is driven by ability.

Turning to SAT IIs, most elite private universities require 2 of these subject exams along with your SAT I – as do most engineering schools and specialized programs at public universities. On the SAT IIs, the general threshold for elite universities and such programs is 750, and these thresholds operate under the same principle as with the SAT I, only the increments are 50 points each. For general admission at elite universities, it is good idea to split your SAT Subject Tests into 1 Math or Science test (Math Levels I or II, Physics, Chemistry, or Biology) and 1 Humanities Test (World History, US History, Literature, or a foreign language). However, for most elite engineering schools and specialized science programs you are required to have taken the Math Level II exam as well as one of Chemistry, Physics, or Biology. Some of these programs even have explicit score thresholds which applicants are required to meet – you can research these requirements. As with the SAT I, only retake these subject tests if you think you can make a jump to another 50 point tier.

Now the last SAT date colleges will accept for the early applications cycle (or applications that are due on or before December 1st) is the November 2nd SAT administration (the October 26th ACT administration), while for regular decision applications, the December 7th SAT (or the December 14th ACT) will also be accepted. SAT IIs will be offered on every SAT test date remaining in 2013 (10/5, 11/2, 12/7).

Zack Perkins

Zack Perkins

Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.
Zack Perkins