If you’re a high school student applying to college, chances are you’re thinking about how your SAT/ACT scores will affect whether or not your are accepted to the school of your choice. Although you get the chance to show admissions committees some of your personality through the Common Application, writing supplements, interview, etc. the numerical scores on standardized tests are often much more unforgiving. As admissions rates to top colleges get lower each year and applicant pools get increasingly more competitive, it’s totally understandable that you might assume colleges are looking for perfection. Luckily, this is not the case.

 

To make a long story short, while SAT and ACT scores play a big role in your admissions decision, they are not the only thing that matters on your application. Many other factors come into play, and while it’s important to study and do your best on your standardized tests, the world certainly won’t end if you don’t get a perfect score. Read on to figure out how having (or not having) a perfect score on your standardized tests can affect your college applications.

 

Test scores won’t get you in, but they will keep you out

When we talk about test scores, it’s good to go by the general principle that test scores won’t grant you admission to your dream school, but scoring below the typical range of applicants to a certain school can negatively affect your chances of getting in. You should focus on getting the best score that you can, but if you have trouble with test-taking or your score isn’t exactly where you want it to be, you should know that this isn’t a death sentence for your application.

 

Obviously, you are not a number. If you’re reading this, you’re likely a high school student with lots of different interests, objectives, quirks, and passions. Admissions committees understand this as well! It wouldn’t be fair to judge every applicant based on numbers, and it’s safe to say that almost no top colleges today are using this method for admissions. Standing out as an applicant means more than just having good test scores or good grades.

 

Understanding the middle 50

When you visit admissions websites and look at data for the schools you want to apply to, you may have noticed a statistic known as the “middle 50.” It is important to understand this set of numbers in the scheme of the admissions process.

 

If a school’s middle 50, for example, is 30-35, this means that half of the accepted applicants scored between a 30 and a 35 on the ACT exam. This also means that 25% of accepted applications scored above a 30, and 25% of accepted applicants scored above a 35. In this case, students who received a perfect score on the exam are well within the minority.

 

You should shoot to be within the middle 50 range of your match school. That being said, falling above the middle 50 can definitely give you a competitive edge, and falling below it might not be the best thing for your application. However, don’t be discouraged from applying even if you do not fit into the middle 50; oftentimes below average test scores can be compensated for by strong essays extracurriculars, and/or recommendations.



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Should I retake the SAT/ACT to get a perfect score?

 

If you took the SAT or ACT once and did well, you might feel compelled to take the exam again to see if you could can do even better (and even potentially get a perfect score). While it’s a good instinct to want to have the best scores possible to send to colleges, you should take a moment to think before registering for your standardized tests a second or third time around.

 

If you scored below the middle 50 for one of the schools you applied to, then it’s probably wise to take the test again. However, if you scored above the middle 50 or maybe even received a score that is close to but not quite perfect, it might not be worth it to take the test again.

 

Once you score past a certain point on your standardized tests, small increases in your score don’t really make as much of a difference. It’s probably safe to say that admissions committees evaluate applicants with a 35 on the ACT the same way that they would evaluate applicants with a 36. After all, the difference between the two scores is likely caused by two or three questions.

 

Test scores as an indicator

As we mentioned earlier, most schools look at standardized test scores as a baseline indicator of academic ability. By looking at your scores, schools want to make sure that you can handle their level of academic rigor and won’t be left struggling when it comes time to actually take classes at a given college. This being said, in order to be admitted to a good school, you should focus on going further than simply test scores.

 

Most top schools use a holistic admissions process. This essentially means that they look at the entire applicant as a “person” rather than just focusing on a set of numbers such as GPA or test scores.

 

For example, let’s assume a high school student who is applying to college has received a perfect 1600 on the SAT but has participated in no extracurriculars, has no work experience, and has completed no community service. Admissions committees would likely be reluctant to admit this type of applicant because they don’t have any qualities that help them stand out against a competitive applicant pool.

 

Your activities and interests in high school are meant to someone reflect what kinds of activities you will participate in in college — with nothing to show save for perfect test scores, you communicate to admissions committees that your main strength is academics. In most cases, colleges and universities are looking for applicants who will excel in academics in addition to being involved with student groups and community service. Top schools want to see students that will contribute significantly to the campus community, not just get good grades.

 

Therefore, when you’re thinking about how you want your application to look to admissions officers, remember to budget your time wisely. Studying for the SAT/ACT should definitely be a priority, but it shouldn’t be the only thing that you’re focused on throughout your high school career.

 

The bottom line on the SAT and ACT

While test scores are important, they’re not the only thing that matters in the scheme of your application. Admissions committees want to see dynamic, well-rounded applicants, not just applicants who can get a perfect score on an exam. If you’re thinking about taking the ACT or the SAT again to raise your score from close-to-perfect to perfect, consider again whether or not this is worth it. High test scores will be evaluated in the same way after a certain point, so a 1550 versus a 1600 won’t necessarily get you into a good college (however, adding another cool project or extracurricular to your resume might increase your chances). Make sure you’re budgeting your time wisely and remember that while test scores are a crucial part of the college application process, they’re only one piece of the larger puzzle that is you, the applicant.
For more tips on how to do well on the SAT/ACT, take a look at these articles:

Which section of the SAT/ACT is the Most Important?

When Should I Take the SAT or ACT?

New SAT vs. ACT (or Why You Should Take the ACT Instead)

FAQ: An Inside Look at How to Do Well on the New SAT



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Devin Barricklow

Devin Barricklow

Senior Blogger at CollegeVine
Devin Barricklow is a Political Science and Creative Writing double major at Columbia University. She’s really excited to be able to share her expertise about the college process with students who need advice. When she isn’t writing for CollegeVine, she enjoys reading the poems of Mary Oliver, going to concerts in the city, or cooking (preferably something with lots of bok choy and ginger).
Devin Barricklow