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So I did well on the SAT – am I DONE?

By Mark Greenstein,
Founder and Lead Instructor – Ivy Bound Tutors
Republication permitted so long as there is attribution.

Every round of reported SAT scores brings questions from parents and students about whether a
1700 / 1800 / 1900 / 2000 / 2100 / 2200 (your child’s SAT score) is good enough.   This article cannot do full justice to the question since grades, quality of the transcript, extracurricular activities, recommendations, competitiveness of the high school, personal statement, and college choice all contribute to a college’s acceptance decision. 

On the ACT / SAT front, a student pining for a certain college who has a GPA above that college’s median should not be considered “done” if s/he has yet to post an SAT score that’s in the Top 25 percentile of the college’s last reported SAT range.  The US News Survey gives the 25th and 75th percentiles for the Class of 2010, and the colleges themselves give median GPAs in their catalogs.   

There are “special admit” exceptions.  These are narrow categories for recruitable athletes, diversity candidates, and extraordinary circumstance families.  Many students wrongly presume they fall into one of these narrow “special admit” categories.  Until a student athlete is contacted by colleges about playing for them, s/he is not a “recruitable athlete”.    And a Vietnamese-American is not automatically “diverse” in the eyes of most colleges.    Similarly, many parents over-include their families in the “extraordinary” category.   “Legacy” is no longer extraordinary, and “knowing someone with pull” is often illusory. 

For admission to top tier colleges in this modern era, very few students can feel an admission is highly likely until they have a GPA that’s WELL above the median and an SAT score that’s 50 points above the “Top 25%” mark.  (Yes, this math means that even a 1600 SAT score can’t generate a “highly likely” feeling for an applicant to a college where the Top 25% mark is 1560.  Absent a “special admit”, no applicant to Cal Tech, MIT, or the Ivy League can ever feel highly likely about a given college).  

At Ivy Bound Test Prep, we know of too many stories recently of students who would have been accepted had they reached a higher SAT threshold.  We often have parents whose students earned very good scores ask whether taking an additional test is "too much" / "overkill".  The answer is:

Absent a “special admit”, there is no SAT overkill when targeting a top tier college.

If a student is eager, or at least neutral about SAT study, more study and practice testing is an opportunity to do great for him/her self. The extra study is the right thing to do so long as the student and parent realize:

A) falling short of a high goal is not a failure -- even a 70 point improvement significantly expands college opportunities

B) the extra study should not come at the expense of grades, good extra-curricular activities, and healthfulness.


C) extra tutoring and extra practice testing help only incrementally; the bulk of the improvement comes in the time we cover the Lessons and the first three Practice Tests.

Parents and students who recognize this have a prescription for maximizing the student's score with a healthy attitude.  Our clients already appreciate that

D) the SAT / ACT is the most important single test in most high school students' careers

and many surmise that

E) attending a name college is a higher predictor of postgraduate success (including household income) than ever before.

Now to what few parents recognize:  the overlooked reason why 2014 and 2015 grads may want to push hard is

F) these are among the highest American high school population years; students graduating in 2014 and 2015 are near the peak of the "boomlet".  Since no new colleges are being built, since many state universities are SHRINKING their class sizes, and since foreign applicants (whom colleges like because of their “diversity” and their paying full tuition) rise each year, American 2014s and 2015s are facing a big pinch.

The best chance to avoid disappointment on the college front is to put yourself in the hands of a good college counselor, and take reasonable measures to maximize your SAT or ACT score. For one month this summer, 6 - 8 hours of tutoring a week and 6 - 10 hours a week of study is a mild sacrifice that yields big gains.   The student can consider it a part time summer job. Once school resumes, I believe in tapering to just 2 - 4 hours of weekly study, including practice testing and a QUALITATIVE review of those tests. That review can include "mastery mode": a student who can teach her study partner or her tutor why the wrong answers are wrong and where the source for the right answers is, is a student who is unlikely to get beat on test day.

Students who do serious study in the spring can take the summer off, but they should then do the 2 - 4 weekly hours ramp-up just before school resumes.

So to end where I began: overkill. I'll qualify my remark slightly. Getting a near-perfect 35 ACT and then trying to get 36 or 2400 on the SAT may be overkill in the eyes of some peers.   Getting 2350 and taking the SAT again to prove something to yourself or someone may also be overkill in the eyes of some peers.   But no COLLEGE will shoot you down on grounds of overkill.  Colleges love excellence, and college trustees, admissions officers, and faculty love displaying excellence.   Even if you don’t want to gratify some college with a great SAT score, consider that there could be value beyond college -- investment banks and certain top laboratories will continue to be impressed by a "perfect" 2400. (Ivy Bound itself gives teachers with 2400 higher pay).  Don’t sacrifice grades, good sports, sleep or wholesome fun to pile on extra points.  But for a few more weeks, you might jettison:
          the mall,
          your Facebook.com expansion
          and voluminous IM time.

Short of 2300, there's significant room to improve in the eyes of many top colleges.  At those colleges, a 50 point improvement CAN make a difference.

When assessing your score against a college's reported percentiles, please note that percentiles from early 2012 reflect the class of 2011 AND will be three years old for the Class of 2014.  For competitive colleges the percentiles for 2014s will be higher (my estimation is by 5 - 15 points).

The good news in all this ratcheting upward is often unspoken: 1) the rewards for college success are higher than ever, as top graduates now receive starting salaries that were unheard-of 25 years ago, even adjusted for inflation.   2) Less-recognized colleges are better than ever.  The quality of education at a “third tier” college may now be equivalent to the quality that "top tier" colleges provided 25 years ago.  The student who knows he wants aeronautics may flourish more at Embry-Riddle University than Harvard.  The student who is interested in mineralogy/oil exploration may be better set for a career by attending the Colorado School of Mines than attending Princeton.  It is for the undecided student, or the decidedly liberal-arts-focused student that the “elite” colleges provide the built-in advantage.