Although, as discussed in my previous post, lots of big-name colleges are breaking rank and no longer requiring that students take the SAT or the ACT, these colleges remain exceptions to what is still very much a rule.

Nearly all competitive universities in the U.S., whether public or private, still require applicants to submit standardized test scores as part of the admissions process.

This post focuses on the role of the SATs in getting into the most selective universities: the Ivies, Stanford, MIT, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, and Caltech.

What is the value of the SAT at the most selective schools—schools such as, say, Harvard?

The first thing to note is that no college really likes the SAT.

Schools just accept it as a necessary evil. This is why a very high—even perfect—SAT score alone will never get a student into a top private school. Colleges simply do not put that much value on the information provided by an SAT score.

This means that it is useful to consider the SAT as a basic hurdle. For top private schools, SAT averages tend to be in the low- to mid-700s per section.

If a student’s SAT scores fall within a school’s score range, then that candidate has cleared a minimal hurdle and is now a viable candidate, one who possesses the critical thinking and reasoning skills necessary to succeed at that school. A high SAT score functions as a basic qualification rather than a positive asset.

Now I want to be very clear about this. The information above is not designed to diminish the importance of the SAT. Remember: an SAT score below a school’s score range can rule an applicant out.

Unless there are some extraordinary compensatory assets elsewhere in the student profile, the student with the below-average SAT score is simply not going to be a serious candidate.

How many times should a student take the SAT?

Say a student is targeting a top private school, but his or her SAT scores are just not within the average score range of accepted students. Should this student take the SAT again? And how many times?

The magic formula at the most selective schools is, “Take it once but no more than twice.”

These colleges do not like it when students take and retake the SAT, especially if scores don’t significantly improve or—even worse—go up and down. This signifies a lack of ability to use time in an efficient and productive way.

Of course, the SAT is not an easy test. The vast majority of students need consistent test prep to master it. But let’s face it. A top school has so many more applicants than it can accept that it can afford to cherry-pick the best of the best. Such schools look for students who are responsible enough to prepare efficiently for the SAT, perceptive enough to take the test only when they are truly ready and—frankly—smart enough to get a great score on just one, at most two, tries.

Students should also avoid retaking the test just to raise their scores a mere forty or fifty points. This is a particular pet peeve of Jon Reider, who was Senior Director of Admissions at Stanford University for over twenty years.

Top schools look at students’ SAT scores insofar as they fall within a range that demonstrates a certain level of critical thinking ability. For example, they do not think there is a significant difference between a 720 on the Writing section and a 740: those twenty points might come down to answering just one more question correctly. Jon Reider considers students who retake the SAT for insignificant score increases “point grubbers” who put too much emphasis on standardized tests at the expense of other, more worthwhile endeavors.

“Super-scoring”: How do the most selective schools evaluate scores from multiple sittings?

Many of the most selective schools, including Harvard, Brown and MIT, consider what is called a “super-score”: a composite SAT score made up of the student’s highest score per subject across multiple sittings.

Now the fact that many colleges use the super-score may seem to undercut our advice that students not take the SAT more than two times. Indeed, some students might begin to think that it is to their advantage to take the SAT as many times as possible so as to gain the maximal possible super-score.

However, students must understand that the most selective schools do not just look at the SAT super-score.

They evaluate a student’s entire test-taking history to see what it reveals about the student. Some SAT records depict students who have been preoccupied with the SAT and have neglected other interests and activities.

Colleges wouldn’t find such priorities too attractive. Other SAT records show students who take and retake a test without any decisive improvement. Again, this could reveal inefficiency and unproductiveness.

Should students exercise score choice?

First of all, What is score choice?

Score choice is a score-reporting option that allows students to decide which SAT and SAT Subject Test scores to send to colleges. As the College Board puts it, this option was introduced to help “put your best foot forward by choosing which scores you send to colleges.”

Although most of the big-name schools super-score, not all of them accept score choice.

Harvard, Princeton, MIT and several other Ivies allow students to exercise score choice and select which SAT and SAT Subject Test scores to send. But many of the other most selective schools have Score Choice policy of “All Scores,” meaning students must report all of their SAT or ACT scores. Stanford and Yale, for example, require that students send all of their SAT scores, yet allow score choice for SAT Subject Tests. Both also officially claim to use super-scoring when assessing test scores.

Now one question that is hotly debated is: will colleges know when score choice is being exercised?

There is a lot of murkiness around this issue. One thing that is pretty clear is that the College Board cannot send any scores to colleges without the student’s permission. If a student elects to send only some of his or her SAT scores to Yale, College Board can’t just send all of this student’s scores to Yale just because Yale has rejected score choice.

As the College Board says, “Students will be encouraged to follow the score-reporting requirements of each college to which they apply, but their scores will not be released for admission purposes without their specific consent. Colleges and universities will only receive the scores that students send them.”

However, this emphatically does not mean that students should just exercise score choice with impunity despite a college’s express request for full disclosure.

First of all, many high schools report SAT scores on a student’s transcript.

Second of all, the potential consequences of getting caught are extremely severe. It would be fully within the rights of a college or university to cancel an offer of admission, kick out an already-matriculated student, or even revoke an already-granted degree should any dishonesty be revealed.

Academic honesty is taken extremely seriously, especially by the most selective institutions, where even unintentional plagiarism is a cause for severe sanction. Students are strongly advised not to try and “game” the admissions office. They should instead focus on developing a test record that they would not want to exercise score choice on.

When should I take the SATs?

Top-tier private schools consider more than just SAT scores and the frequency of retakes. They also factor in when a student takes the SAT.

This little bit of information can provide the admissions officer with an important nugget of insight into the character of the applicant. Here’s what I mean:

Admissions officers see so many applications that they accumulate a great wealth of regional information. In particular, they know which areas around the U.S. have an intense test prep culture. So when they open up an application from a student living in, say, northern California, they’ll know that this applicant has been inundated with information about the SAT from an early age.

So if this student takes the SAT very late—say, at the beginning of senior year—admissions officers will assume that the delay was caused by procrastination rather than a lack of information….and that this applicant has spent the summer before senior year cramming for the SATs, rather than engaging in something more worthwhile.

What this means is that students targeting the most selective private schools should aim to complete their SATs before senior year.

Sticking to this timetable will mean that students don’t have to waste the crucial summer before senior year on SAT prep, but can pursue more meaningful activities and get a head start on their application essays. It will also mean that students have more information in hand before deciding whether and where to apply early.

This post aimed to give students insight into the role the SATs play in gaining admission to the most selective private schools. I’ll summarize with two take-home lessons.

  1. Students should remember that attaining a high SAT score is a minimal requirement to get considered for admission, rather than a positive asset that will gain admission. The overwhelming majority of applicants to top private schools come in with excellent SAT scores.
  2. Specific SAT scores don’t matter as much as a student’s score range and test-taking history. A student’s SAT score, like his or her GPA, is not just a number. Both are pieces of data that, when analyzed by an admissions officer, yield insights about character as much as aptitude.

Now I want to emphasize that these two pieces of information are very specific to private school admissions at the most selective institutions nationwide.

They don’t necessarily apply to other top-tier private schools—prestigious schools like Tufts and NYU—or to public schools. Key differences will be explained in the next post.

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