After they've put their pencils down, many applicants will believe their admission fate hangs in the balance. But what really matters?
Everybody breathe. Unlike a tattoo, your SAT score is not an indelible part of your personal identity. As a matter of fact, an SAT score doesn’t say as much about you as you might assume it does. The SAT (or the ACT, if that’s your standardized test of choice) is one supporting piece of the admissions puzzle, even if its out-sized reputation suggests otherwise. (If it were a person it would have a huge ego, I think. And I bet nobody would like him.)
To be sure, testing occupies significant turf on the admissions landscape. The colleges report the average scores of accepted and enrolling students; guidebooks and magazines use those scores to rank the colleges (is that a feedback loop?); real estate agents highlight local scores as selling points about the “quality” of the schools in town; and maybe your mother keeps telling the neighbors how you did…
I get it. I understand why an SAT score is seen as a badge of honor or a mark of impending doom. And it’s not surprising that so many seniors have dated Stanley Kaplan (that old charmer gets around...). I am surprised that no one has revealed the SAT scores of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as they sprint towards Election Day…although didn't Donald Trump try to find out? I digress.
People like numbers, and bigger numbers are almost always better. But interpreting the meaning of an SAT score is not as transparent as it seems nor is it the sole measure of academic achievement and intellectual potential. Typically—ideally--the standardized testing reinforces what we see on your transcript. A student who’s done well in a rigorous course of study usually has scores that jive with that fact. But not always, and if that’s not the case, we dig deeper.
Perhaps you’re someone who doesn’t test well. If so, your grades in a top curriculum will be the critical evidence and your teacher recommendations will corroborate that evidence. We’ll see whether or not the quality of writing in your essays jives with your SAT-Writing score and teacher comments. A low(er) writing score paired with a great essay and teacher cartwheels about your verbal acuity offer compelling proof that the score, in this example, is a less valid measurement for us to consider. And what does your math teacher say about your ability to negotiate a fast-paced quantitative curriculum (especially if you want to major in engineering or the sciences)? Those are the dots we connect: Transcript + testing + teacher recommendations / local context = academic assessment.
For the record, we super-score whatever test scores you submit so stop worrying about that issue. Our computer automatically chooses the highest individual score for each section of the SAT and ACT. And if you submit an SAT and an ACT score, the all-knowing program also tells the reader which score is “the best” one for you, and that’s the one we use.
As an admission officer, I use professional judgment to asses your scores. In other words, the definition of a “good” score varies from applicant to applicant and from high school to high school as we evaluate the score in the context of demographics or local circumstances. For example, if you attend a rural public high school where the average score for the senior class is 1070 (critical reading plus math), you might reasonably be evaluated as a “high tester” if you earned a 1220. True, that score would be around 200 points below the Tufts mean for an accepted applicant last year but remember two points: a college’s reported mean is the average of everyone’s scores, not the essential cut-off (Tufts doesn’t have a cut-off) and the student’s score in this example is 150 points higher than the norm at that particular high school. That matters. In fact, that local context is a very illuminating piece of information.
A student recently asked me “What score do I need to get into Tufts?” That’s a very common if misdirected question and I offered my usual response: “That’s the wrong question,” I told her. Undaunted, she countered: “Okay, answer it anyway and then tell me what question I should have asked you.” (She got points for pluck.)
I reframed her question as I answered it: The mean score for an accepted student last year was 1453. (It’s 2183 if you insist on adding the three sections together.) But the better question examines the middle-50% range of accepted scores. That stretches the scores from 1390 to 1540 (or 690 to 770 per section). Looking at the range rather than the mean offers a more valuable window into the competitiveness of your score in Tufts’ admission process. It also reveals that 25 percent of the accepted class scored below a 1390. Again, we evaluated individual scores in local contexts. And I believe that’s a more complete answer to the student’s question than simply saying “You need a 1453 (2183).”
Another useful piece of testing info that nobody ever asks us is the score ranges for the SAT-2 subject tests. (Tufts requires applicants to submit two subject tests, unless you take the ACT with Writing, which covers all your testing bases). In many files, the subject scores are very valuable pieces of information, arguably more so than the SAT-1. Since the SAT-2 is subject-based, the score gives us a mechanism to consider what you learned in your high school curriculum relative to other students who completed a similar course of study. Perhaps you earned B in AP US History and earned a 730 on the subject test in American history while another student received an A in the same course at a different school but scored 590 on the subject test. The student with the “lower” grade performed better on the standardized subject test; that’s instructive. (The same comparison holds true for an AP score, if that information is available.)
Subject tests give us another way to analyze your work and to guarantee to Tufts’ faculty, as best as we can, they everyone in the freshman class is comparably prepared. That’s a critical outcome of an admission process that enrolls each new class from more than 900 different high schools in all 50 states and more than 40 countries.
As you prepare to face the standardized bubbles this weekend, remember that the “best” test takers are not always the most compelling applicants. I am not dismissing the value of big scores in a competitive college admissions process just reiterating its supporting role in our work. Sometimes, the big scores are the only enticing parts of the file. Conversely, sometimes “low” scores are the only piece that’s not groovy. As I’ve already said, testing is one element among many.
And here’s a final thought: no one will know your SAT score once you get here (unless you reveal it). The test is a mechanism to select the next freshman class and predict its success. It is not the tool we use to define its character and personality. You can’t measure someone’s creativity, kindness, citizenship, originality, grit, wit and leadership from an SAT score.