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Let’s begin by looking at how the UCs evaluate the SATs. Then we’ll turn to see how more selective second-tier schools like Tufts, USC, and Boston College evaluate the SATs.

The UCs and the SATs

In understanding the admissions process for the UCs and most public schools, it’s important to keep in mind the sheer numbers of students that we’re talking about.

A school like UCLA typically receives twice the number of applicants that a comparably-sized private school gets. This means that admissions officers at a UC have that much less time to devote to each applicant. As a result, the UC admissions process is much more numbers-driven.

In other words, GPA and SAT scores are much more important! Only in very rare cases would an extracurricular activity be able to compensate for low scores. On the flipside, an indifferent extracurricular record probably won’t keep a student out of a UC, so long as the student maintains high numbers.

The UCs also don’t have time to “interpret” SAT test-taking records: they don’t have the resources to scrutinize when and how often a particular student has taken a test and work out what this says about the student’s character. Rather, the UCs ask for all scores and then focus on the highest composite score attained in one sitting.

Example: John takes the SAT to get into a UC school
Let’s say John takes the SAT in October of his junior year and receives a 1470 (740 Math, 730 EBRW). He retakes the SAT in January and receives a 1490 (790 Math, 700 EBRW). The UCs will just focus on the January score in making their admissions decision. In other words, the UCs don’t super-score.

Given this information, what is the best SAT test-taking strategy for a student who is targeting the UCs?

First of all, this student should take the test as early as possible—probably October of junior year—allowing ample time to retake the test if necessary. Then, this student should retake the test if necessary in order to attain his or her goal score. But students must not abuse this advice and take the SAT before they’re really ready—or decide to take the test casually or in a haphazard fashion.

There are only a limited number of opportunities to take the SATs…and students will need to devote some of these test dates to the SAT Subject Tests. Additionally, SAT test dates routinely coincide with times of high student stress: May and June test dates fall just when students are preparing for AP exams and school finals, and October and November test dates distract students preparing their college applications.

And of course, all SAT prep must be balanced with schoolwork, since maintaining a strong GPA must be every student’s top priority. This means that even students targeting the UCs must be highly strategic and organized about taking the SATs.

Second-tier private colleges and the SATs

Now let’s take a look at the SATs in the context of second-tier private schools: schools such as Tufts University, USC and Boston College.

Each of these schools has its own method of evaluating the SAT. Some super-score, some do not; some allow score choice, others do not. Some will spend more time mining the details of an SAT record—how many sittings? how significant the improvements?—for insight into a candidate’s character. But whatever the specific method of evaluation, the SAT provides students with a very unique opportunity when it comes to these second-tier universities. Here’s what I mean.

As much as they’d like to claim otherwise, the second-tier schools are very sensitive to their rankings in publications such as the U.S. News & World Report.

While these rankings definitely have their critics, no one would dispute the fact that a high ranking boosts a school’s reputation and bumps up applicant numbers. It also pleases college alumni, which in turn can help grow a school’s endowment. Now a major factor in coming up with these rankings is the average SAT score of incoming freshmen.

Earlier, I wrote that students should think of the SAT as a basic hurdle. Scoring within a college’s average SAT range is enough to overcome this first hurdle—it’s enough to get an applicant on the table as a serious candidate, although not enough to get an applicant in.

However, what about the student with SAT scores that are well above a school’s range?

This is where the second-tier schools differ significantly from the most selective colleges. At the second-tier schools, a strong SAT score can count as a positive asset. Above-average SAT scores will help the college raise its rankings, so second-tier colleges have a reason not just to consider the student with the high SAT score, but to go ahead and admit that student. In fact, the admissions process at second tier schools is generally more forgiving. Demonstrated excellence in one area can more readily compensate for shortcomings in other areas, even GPA.

By contrast, admissions is so competitive at the most selective schools that there is no room for error. It is pretty much impossible to have an off-the-chart SAT score at a school like Harvard—there are too many 1600s already on the table!

So what’s the best SAT test-taking strategy for students targeting a school such as Boston College?

Again, students should plan to take the test earlier rather than later to leave enough time to retake the test. Now if a student scores fairly well on their first try—within but not exceeding the target school’s average range—then because the student has a reasonable chance of scoring higher on subsequent tries, especially with enough time and due preparation, this student should consider retaking the SAT.

However, students and parents must be realistic about the students’ ability to improve on the SAT. They must remember that for schools that don’t accept score choice, repeated retakes without discernible or significant improvement leave students looking indecisive and unimpressive.

Students should also know that they have an alternative to the SAT. This is the test known as the ACT. I’ll discuss this option in the next post.

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