Every round of reported SAT and ACT scores brings questions from parents and students about whether ____ score is good enough. This short answer cannot do 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.
But on the ACT / SAT front, we want to add a bit more about which students can consider themselves “done”. We often have parents whose students earned very good scores ask whether a fall practice test is “too much” / “overkill”. Our answer is:

On the admissions front, a better score never constitutes overkill.*

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

  1. Falling short of a high goal is not a failure — even a 100 point improvement significantly expands college opportunities
  2. The ACT/SAT is the most important single test in most high school students’ careers
  3. That attending a “name” college gives a significant lift for first job and grad school opportunities.

The best chance to avoid disappointment on the college front is to take reasonable measures to maximize your ACT or SAT score. Over the summer, 5 – 8 hours of tutoring a week and 5 – 10 hours a week of study is still LESS than a part time summer job. Once school resumes, we like tapering to just 1.5 – 3 hours of weekly study, including practice testing and quality reviews of those tests. Those reviews 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.

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So to end where we began: overkill. We’ll qualify the remark slightly. Getting a 36 ACT and then trying to get 1600 on the SAT – that MAY be overkill in the eyes of some colleges. Still, there could be value beyond college — investment banks and certain top laboratories will continue to be impressed by a “perfect” 1600. (Ivy Bound itself gives teachers with ACT 36 or SAT 1600 higher pay). Don’t sacrifice grades, good sports, sleep or wholesome fun to pile on extra points. But you might jettison Xbox, or the mall, for a few months. You might reduce your FB / Snapchat / Twitter and texting exchanges for a few more weeks.

At every SAT / ACT level short of perfect, even a small improvement CAN make a difference. We know of too many stories recently of students who would have been accepted had they reached a higher SAT/ACT threshold.

The good news in all this ratcheting upward is often unspoken: less-recognized colleges are better than ever. The quality of education at a third tier college is now equivalent to the quality that “top tier” colleges provided 30 years ago. Thus no student should feel badly about stopping on SAT/ACT with a score that will get her/him in to a decent four-year college.

There is one clarification about really high SAT / ACT success. For a student with mediocre grades, a high SAT/ACT score that goes extraordinarily high with no improvement in GPA means the colleges fear a “disinterested genius”. A few will take their chances with this kind of applicant, but most will not. So that increased SAT / ACT score without an improved GPA is like “pushing on a string” (pushing at the bottom of a hanging string barely moves the upper part of the string).   We don’t call this “overkill”, because it still pushes in the right direction for success, but we’d want to see simultaneous effort to improve the transcript/GPA.