What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

What Your SAT Scores Really Mean In College Admissions

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For many high school students, standardized tests are a huge part of the college admissions process. After all, selective colleges often use test scores to help in the initial screening of applications, so it’s only natural that many students get anxious just thinking about them.


Here at CollegeVine, we have successfully counseled hundreds of students through the test prep and college application processes, so we’ve heard all the questions and more.


Will a bad score mean I can’t get into my top choice college?


Does a perfect score outweigh my less-than-stellar grades?


What score will guarantee me a place at an Ivy League?


There’s no doubt that standardized test scores often play a role in college admissions, but it’s hard to generalize exactly much they matter across the board. In this post, we’ll discuss the various ways in which standardized test scores are weighed during the college admissions process. So, if you’re gearing up for a standardized test or college app season, read on to learn more about how much your SAT or ACT scores actually matter.



When Are SAT and ACT Scores Most Important in College Admissions?

There are two instances in which SAT and ACT are weighed heavily on college applications. The first is at the very beginning of an application’s review, and the second is at the end.


Initially, SAT and ACT scores are sometimes used as screening tools in the college admissions process. That means they are one a few factors that are commonly reviewed before an entire application gets read.


Admissions committees have a tough job. They often have to sort through thousands of applications to find the students who will be the best match at their university. Because these admissions officers are real people, and not simply robots without the need for sleep, food, or drink during admissions season, they are simply not able to read each and every application in its entirety.


Instead, each application gets an initial review, or what amounts to essentially a skim reading, to determine if it should be looked at in more depth. Often, these initial reviews include a glance at standardized test scores, along with a few other factors like grades and extracurriculars or honors. If your scores in combination with these other factors do not compel the admissions committee to look further, there’s a possibility that your application won’t be completely reviewed.


In other words, there are a few pieces of data on your application that have the opportunity to impress at first glance, and test scores are one of them. Perform well enough and you just might earn a spot in the second round of application reviews. Have a dismal showing and fail to compel the admissions committee in other ways and your application may not see the light of another day.


The second instance in which your standardized test scores can be very important is when the admissions committee is finalizing their acceptances. Imagine this—the committee has narrowed their choices to 50 applicants, but only has room for half of them. Their job now is to compare the applicants and choose the ones who are most likely to succeed. If your application is identical to the next one, but you outscore him or her by 100 points on your SAT, you will likely become the more desirable candidate.



When Are SAT and ACT Scores Least Important in College Admissions?

Sometimes, SAT and ACT are not important in college admissions. This is great news for the student who simply doesn’t perform well on tests or who, for whatever reason, hasn’t prepped as well as possible.

SAT and ACT scores become less important when other aspects of your application become more compelling. For example, if you have competed at the national level in athletics or you have patented a new advance in medical technology, the fact that you performed poorly on your verbal SAT will be less important because the remainder of your application is so strong.


Another time when standardized test scores don’t matter as much is when you are applying to a specific major or program that is largely unrelated to them. If your calling is musical performance and you have performed on the national stage, successfully competed in high profile band competitions, and taught master classes at a local community college, your SAT or ACT scores aren’t very relevant to your intended course of study.


Finally, some colleges simply don’t weigh standardized tests very heavily. For example, Wesleyan, Bowdoin, Bates, and George Washington University don’t require standardized tests at all anymore, and these are just a few of the colleges that now consider these tests optional. To learn more about testing-optional schools, check out our post The Reality of the Testing Optional Trend.



How Can I Use SAT and ACT Score Data to Help In the College Admissions Process?

Standardized test scores aren’t just useful to college admissions committees. They can be useful to you, the applicant, as well. When you are choosing which colleges you’ll apply to, you can use your SAT or ACT scores to help narrow your choices.


The simplest way to do this is by researching the SAT and ACT scores of admitted students at the colleges that interest you most. This data is typically readily available through a simple online query and is also often published by US News and World Report in their annual college review. When you review the scores of admitted students, you will usually see them broken down into percentile ranges.


For example, at Notre Dame, the 25th percentile SAT score is 1410, the 50th percentile SAT score is 1490, and the 75th percentile SAT score is 1550. This means that if you score a 1400 on the SAT, you should consider Notre Dame a reach school, because your score falls in the bottom 25% of admitted students.


Of course, this doesn’t mean that you won’t get in, but it does mean that your application will have to be more impressive in other ways to make up for it. On the other hand, if you score a 1570, you have a far better chance. While you still aren’t guaranteed an acceptance, you can be assured that you won’t be rejected due to your test scores.


To learn more about how SAT scores can shape your college list and where you choose to apply, check out our post The College List, Decoded: Safety, Target, and Reach Schools.


Preparing for the SAT? Download our free guide with our top 8 tips for mastering the SAT.


For help preparing for the SAT and deciphering your SAT scores, see these valuable CollegeVine posts:


Tips to Prepare Yourself for Your SAT Test Day

How to Pace Yourself on Every Section of the SAT

Five SAT Strategies You Should Know

10 Tips to Prepare for the SAT

What Parents Need to Know about ACT and SAT Studying Prep

How Your SAT Score Impacts Your College Admissions

The CollegeVine Guide to SAT Scores: All Your Questions Answered


Want to know how your SAT score impacts your chances of acceptance to your dream schools? Our free Chancing Engine will not only help you predict your odds, but also let you know how you stack up against other applicants, and which aspects of your profile to improve. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to gain access to our Chancing Engine and get a jumpstart on your college strategy!

Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.