Two identical test scores. Two very different situations.
A mom calls me, excited that her daughter—we’ll call her Emily—has scored a 34 on the ACT. Optimism pervades this family’s college process. They believe that 34, combined with a solid junior year with just one B, is Emily’s golden ticket into America’s most selective colleges. Never mind a so-so start to Emily’s high school career, with a fair number of Bs and possibly a C or two. She’s got an upward trend. Decent if not amazing extracurricular activities. And that 34.
Another mom tells me in hushed tones that her daughter’s friend—we’ll call her Jill—”only” got a 34 on the ACT. Jill is a tippy top student, a true scholar who is two grade levels ahead in math and has taken 11 AP classes. Pessimism pervades my friend’s view of Jill’s college process. She believes that 34 can’t possibly be high enough for America’s most selective colleges.
Glass half empty? Glass half full?
Evaluating college admission possibilities on the basis of numbers is like choosing a car solely on the basis of horsepower. Grades and test scores give students the oomph they need to enter the race, but extracurricular activities, recommendations, essays, and other factors determine who wins. So that 34 may have been enough to be considered, at least for a moment, at the particular selective university where Emily and Jill both applied Early Decision, but Emily’s mom thought it was going to propel her to a win, whereas Jill’s friend thought it would hold her back.
Neither was right.
Jill’s overall transcript and extracurricular involvement were impressive. And against that backdrop, a 34 was good enough. She got in. But a 34 wasn’t good enough to distinguish Emily from the rest of the pack. Nor would a 35 or 36 have done the trick. A test score is just a snapshot of how a student performs, compared with gazillions of other students, on one test, one day. Some schools may have an official or unofficial threshold, where anything below a certain score could seriously jeopardize your admission, but not one highly selective college admits students on the basis of scores alone. As I’ve read in another article, no admission officer rushes into his colleague’s office and says “Wow! You’ve got to take a look at this 1600 SAT score!” But he might say, “You’ve got to read this essay,” or “You’ve got to hear what this kid does in her free time.”
A student tugged at my heartstrings this year. Jake, an aspring computer scientist, is a gentle soul who has overcome some emotional issues and wrote about them in his essay. He is also #1 in his class and has a perfect ACT score. He has played his sport for four years and participated in a few other activities, but nothing really meaty. Not the kind of stuff you usually see in computer science applicants—research, developing an app, teaching coding to kids—in fact, nothing to support his interest in the field besides spending his free time figuring out the inner workings of video games. Sigh. Jake’s immigrant parents didn’t know that he’d need to bolster his resume, and neither did he. Nobody at his large public high school told him. I met him too late in the process to influence him. And so you know where this is heading. Perfect grades and scores simply were not enough to distinguish Jake from the very competitive field applying to the STEM-focused school where he applied ED. It wasn’t the same school as Emily and Jill, but schools would rather have a Jill—less than perfect, but perfectly human and highly engaged—than a Jake. They want balance, they want character, they want evidence of how you’ll contribute to their classroom and their community.
A strong ACT or SAT score isn’t an entree to these schools, but rather a side dish in the smorgasbord you’ll bring to their table. For that reason, not all 34s are created equal. If it’s the shining highlight of an application—the main course, if you will—that application isn’t going to pass muster at the most competitive colleges. If it’s offered alongside other tantalizing aspects of the students personal interests, accomplishments, and promise for the future, it’s gravy.
Update Spring 2018: Emily is attending the honors program of a state university. She was not admitted to the majority of colleges to which she applied. Jake is attending a University of California school with a strong computer science program. He was not admitted to the two private STEM colleges to which he applied.