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Here’s the only way your SAT or ACT score is important

I get to work with a couple of hundred students every year. One of the most frequent conversations we have goes something like this.

“I only got a 1260 on my SAT.”

“That’s a great score.”

“But everyone else is getting better scores.”

No, not everyone else is getting better scores. A 1260 is a top quartile score. It’s a score that will get you accepted to plenty of great colleges. (I love this great report from Compass Prep to get some idea of how a score compares.)

The problem isn’t the score. The problem is remembering how a score is relevant.

Remember your fishbowl

No matter how big your community, you’re only seeing a sliver of the test results out there. You might be talking to a few students, maybe a dozen, who are telling you their scores. About 2.1 million students took the SAT in 2017 and 1.9 million took the ACT the same year. If you’re in the top quartile, your score is better than about 1.5 million other people.

Of course, that’s taking the “everyone” a little too literally. The student knows that their score isn’t really worse than everyone else. It just seems like everyone they talk to has a better score than they do. This is mostly because of how our brains work. Most people have an inherent negativity bias. It’s probably a remnant of how we survived as a species. We remember negative experiences more clearly than positive ones. It made sense when we ate a handful of berries that made us throw up all afternoon. Green berries bad. Red berries good.

Today it happens on days like when the PSAT scores come back. Students ask each other what they got, and an immediate comparison takes place. We remember the times when we didn’t measure up with more clarity than the times that we had the better score.

Social media isn’t doing us any favors here. If you’re a member of the SAT or ACT subreddits or your on some board like Quora or College Confidential, it’s pretty easy to start to think everyone else out there is scoring above a 1500 or getting that 36. They’re not. It’s back to the humble brag, especially for that narcissist who puts up the “rate my chances” post: I have a 1650 on the SAT, 7.9 unweighted GPA on a 4 point scale, invented water, and have cured world hunger. Do I have a chance at MIT?

Those posts are borne out of some sort of insecurity. Just like the person wanting to compare PSAT scores, this also should stop. Don’t be a part of it.

No matter how competitive the fishbowl you’re in, you’re still in a fishbowl. Comparing your score to the people sitting on your right and left in English or sharing a lab table with you in Chemistry isn’t the best comparison.

Keep your scores in context

It’s tough to know exactly what the role of the test scores will be in your college application. I wish I could tell you they aren’t significant. They are, but probably not in the way that most people think.

I used the phrase “a score that will get you accepted to college” earlier. That’s misleading as to how you score works in your college application. The score itself, in isolation, will not get you accepted to a school, particularly if you have grades that are much lower than your score indicates they should be. For most colleges these days, the SAT or ACT score provides a way for them to compare students from different schools with different grading scales. How does the 4.0 unweighted GPA from that elite private school compare to the 100.6 GPA from a competitive public school to the top-5 student from the Title 1 school?

Admissions officers are going to see applications from a range of backgrounds and circumstances. The SAT and ACT scores provide them a way to get a feel for what a student’s GPA means. In an age that has seen rampant grade inflation, particularly at selective and competitive schools, it provides some context for what a particular GPA indicates.

Know the score you need

Before you worry about whether or not “everyone else” has a higher score, you should know the score you need. Around Thanksgiving Break of your Junior year, it’s important that you start to solidify the list of schools you’re planning to apply to. You’re not committing yourself to apply to these schools, but this is a great time to do a little bit of research and see how your scores compare. If you’ve already taken an SAT or ACT, you have a score to use. If you haven’t, you might wait until your PSAT comes back in around the 2nd week of December.

In the meantime, start a list of the colleges you think you’d like to go to and use a website like College Navigator to find out what sort of score you’ll need. You can add colleges to your list and experiment with the search parameters. Look at the “Admissions” section and see what the range of SAT and ACT scores were. They give you the middle 50% range (25th – 75th percentile). Unless you’re a recruited population (athletes, academics, first generation, etc.), you want your score to be above the 50th percentile to be competitive. If you’re really not sure of the schools you’re looking for, a resource like BigFuture’s “Finding Your College Fit” can help you get started. It will

give you a set of questions to consider and generate a list of schools that fit your answers.

Both of these are essentially free resources. College Navigator is supported by the Department of Education, so your tax dollars have paid for it. BigFuture is supported by College Board, so your SAT and AP test fees are helping support it.

Once you know the score you need, you’ll know how much more test prep it’s going to take. If your score is already above that 50th percentile score for the schools you want to apply to, be done with it. More test prep is great for test prep companies. Spend that valuable time doing things that enrich your community and make you a better human being. Read to children. Volunteer at the animal shelter. But quit worrying about how your score compares to anyone else.