This Saturday seniors will sit for the November edition of the SAT-1, one of the final two test dates before applications are due in January. Pencils sharpened, test-takers will spend more than three hours with the bubble-filled test, many believing their admission fate hangs in the balance.
Unlike a tattoo, your SAT score is not an indelible part of your identity. We know a lot about Barack Obama and John McCain but does anyone know what each scored on the SAT? Does anyone care?!
To be sure, the SAT occupies significant “turf” on the landscape of competitive college admissions. Colleges report our average scores; guidebooks and magazines use these scores to rank us; real estate agents tout them as people look for a new home with “high quality” schools. In a twist on the Goldilocks fable students fret that their scores are too low or not high enough; sadly, rarely does someone say a score is “just right.”
I understand why scores are often viewed as badges of honor or doom for high school seniors with their eyes on a most selective admissions prize. People like numbers, and data is easy shorthand for quality, success and value. Admission officers are people, too. Numbers help us sort and evaluate a big, deep pool of compelling candidates. Consider the blizzard of polls that greet us each morning as the presidential campaign winds down. Each offers a glimpse of the future, a prediction or snapshot by which campaigns and voters can plan. But as more than one politician has asserted, polls are not fool proof nor are they a replacement for voting. Neither is standardized testing the sole measure of a student’s academic achievement or potential for admissions success. It is a statistical assessment taken on one morning, or maybe a few mornings, during your junior and senior years of high school. That’s it.
As you fill-in the rows of bubbles on Saturday morning, here are a few words of comfort to keep your nerves at bay. Above all, remember that testing is one element of a holistic admissions process. Think about what we request in an application: each of these elements matters. In combination, they inform the final decision. If it didn’t we would not ask you to submit that information. “Merit” in college admissions cannot be distilled in your SAT score alone. Seriously. (I watch Grey’s Anatomy, too.)
Not surprisingly, the high school transcript is clearly the heart of any application. In the Tufts admissions process, it is the quality of your academic work in a most demanding curriculum (relative to what is available at your high school) that matters most. The other elements—like testing, essays, extracurricular activities, recommendations–are supporting documents to the transcript. If the transcript doesn’t add up, the other factors don’t matter. But there is good news to report: most applicants to Tufts have impressive high school transcripts.
Ideally, standardized testing reinforces what we see on a transcript. The SAT or ACT score—either is welcome and carries equal weight—gives depth to our understanding of your curriculum and performance. If that is not the case, we dig deeper. Perhaps you don’t test well, as many students often profess. If that is the case, your grades will tell that story and your teacher recommendations will corroborate it. Admission officers will see evidence of academic success as well as a mind at work over a four-year window. What is the quality of writing like in your essays? What does your math teacher say about your ability to negotiate a fast-paced quantitative curriculum (especially if you want to major in engineering or one of the sciences)? And if these documents don’t refute the idea that you didn’t test well, that’s instructive, too. In the end, everyone cannot gain admission to Tufts.
Admission officers use professional judgment to assess an applicant’s score. One score does not fit everyone and the definition of a “good” score varies from applicant to applicant. While the average SAT score for accepted applicants last year was 1444—most college admission officers continue to use the two-part scale of 1600 rather than the 2400 version that most students prefer—we evaluate your score in the context of your demographics or local circumstances. For example, if you attend a rural high school where the average score for the senior class is 1070 you might be evaluated as a “high tester” if you earned a score of 1220. True, that score is 214 points below the Tufts mean *but* it is also 150 points higher than the norm at your school. That matters. In fact, it’s a very enlightening piece of information as we consider your application. You tested well in the context of your home environment.
A student recently asked me “What score do I need to get into Tufts?” It’s a common question and I offered my usual response. “That’s the wrong question,” I told her. Undaunted, she countered me: “Okay, answer it anyway and then tell me what question I should have asked you.” (She got points for pluck.) I reframed her original question as I answered it: the mean score for an accepted student last year was 1444 but the better question examines the middle-50% range of scores. The answer to that question stretches the scores from 1380 to 1540, and it offers a more valuable window into the competitiveness of your score in Tufts admission process. It also reveals that 25 percent of the accepted class scored below a 1380 as we evaluated individual scores in local contexts, and the lowest combined scores hovered around 1000. I believe that’s a more complete answer than “1444.”
Another good question that nobody ever asks is the score ranges for the SAT-2 subject tests. (Tufts requires two for each applicant unless you take the ACT, which covers all your testing bases). In many files, the subject scores are very valuable pieces of information, perhaps even more than the SAT-1. Since the test is subject-based it gives us a mechanism to consider what you learned in your high school curriculum relative to other students who completed a similar course. Perhaps you earned B in AP US History but earned a 730 on the subject test in American history while another student received an A in the same course at a different school but a 590 on the subject test. You had different teachers but took the same subject test. The student with “lower” grade performed better on the standardized test. It gives us another way to analyze your work and guarantee to our faculty at Tufts, as best as we can, they everyone in the freshman class is comparably prepared. That’s a critical outcome of an admission process that enrolls each new class from more than 900 different high schools in all 50 states and more than 40 countries.
If standardized testing was the most important part of our admissions process, Tufts would have a very different freshman class. The “best” test scores are not always the most interesting people. I am not dismissing the value of it in a competitive college admissions process just reiterating its supporting role in our work.
And here’s a final thought: no one knows your SAT score once you get here. The test is a mechanism to select a class, not define its character.