SAT scores: When another 50 (or 100) points makes no difference

When you’ve been doing test preparation and college admissions advising as long as I have, one invariably has this conversation with bright, ambitious students or their parents.

“I scored a 2200 on my SAT.   If I take it again and get a 2300, will that ensure I get into (insert name of preferred college or university here)?”

The answer is there is no score that will ensure acceptance into a given school— college admissions committees, especially at more selective schools, REALLY do consider applicants in their totalities, and a student’s SAT score is only one part of that.  High school grades, and what kind of courses (honors, Advanced Placement) they are earned in are still the most important initial criteria. Standardized test scores, letters of recommendation, talents/extracurricular activities, personal statements, and interviews (and, yes, sometimes ability to pay without financial aid) complete the profile.   Standardized test scores tend to serve the function of providing a rough comparative guide amongst groups of applicants; people with higher scores are more likely to garner further consideration.

At high score levels, this tends to break down, however, and that’s mostly a function of how the scores are created.  Many people know that raw scores—in the case of the SAT, how many right minus a fraction of how many wrong—are translated into those infamous 200-800 scaled scores on each section (Math, Critical Reading, and Writing), but not many (including, unfortunately, too many in test prep and in college admissions offices)  realize that the scaled scores are not linear—in other words, the difference between scores of, say, 750 and 700 is not as “wide” as between a 700 and 650, which in turn is not as “wide” as between a 600 and 650.

This is due primarily to statistical analysis—and the desire of the people at Educational Testing Service (ETS), producers of the SAT, to have the scores reflect a “normal”, or bell-shaped, statistical curve.   Without getting heavily into statistics, the “average” SAT section score is given a scaled value of 500, with certain normal-curve derived percentiles at 100-point intervals—a 600 section score, for instance, is the 84th percentile; a 700 is the 97 and a half percentile.   If one adds all three section scores, that means a score of 2100 is higher than 97.5% of all scores nationwide.   (The ACT is also scored along this type of curve—there, a composite scaled score of roughly 33 is the 97th percentile.)

A 2100 score is enough for a student to apply to even the most selective college; there is no school in the US at which the average SAT scores of accepted students is above roughly 2150, no matter which overly hyped list is consulted (and there are a lot of those—most trying to promote the “selectivity” of one school versus another).  This seems evident if given thought—if less than 3% of students score above 2100, some people with scores below that are getting into highly selective schools.   Or, to put it another way, some people with comparatively LOWER scores (not very low, but LOWER) are gaining admission to such schools ahead of at least some people with higher scores.  And they may be getting in because they are better candidates in their totality, due to talents or essays or whatever, than some of the really stratospheric scorers.  (Schools, especially selective ones, do like to have varied, diverse, and interesting student bodies.)  

So what’s the takeaway?  Basically, after a certain level—roughly the mid 2100’s—no amount of additional SAT points increase the likelihood of getting into Harvard or CalTech.  If one is already scoring at the 97th percentile, one has already proven that one can do well on standardized tests—getting another score that ranks in the 99th percentile is irrelevant to admissions committees.   (And some take a negative view of students who, scoring such levels on their first exam, try several more times to pursue a “perfect” 2400.)  At these levels, other factors come much more into play—and applicants are well advised to work on their personal statements and interview skills.


Glenn Ribotsky was, in previous lives, an admissions counselor at both New York University and later at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. Glenn is currently one of Bell Curves premium tutors, bringing over 20 years of test preparation and college admissions experience to our team. When not tutoring students, writing materials or conducting community workshops for the ISEE, SSAT, SHSAT, SAT, ACT, GRE, or GRE Psychology, Glenn spends his time watching his son become the country’s next great point guard.

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