Perspectives on SAT and ACT Scores.

Middlebury Dean Says SAT or ACT Score Is ‘Seldom a Deal Breaker’



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Mr. Clagett is dean of admissions of Middlebury College.

Too many prospective applicants obsess far too much about the role of their SAT or ACT scores in the admissions process. In fact, those scores are seldom a deal maker or breaker.

It’s not that they play no role in the process, but highly selective colleges don’t usually have “cut off” scores for accepting or rejecting applicants, and most have a fairly wide range of scores represented among their admitted students.

Higher scores are better than lower scores, of course, but even the highest scores are by no means a guarantee of admission. And sometimes a lower score can be at least partially offset by other factors in the application, like coming from an underrepresented background, having a special talent that is desirable in the student body, or any of the myriad other factors that come into play in the decision-making process.

At most of the colleges to which you apply, your scores will probably look a lot like those of other applicants, so it’s unlikely they’ll be a deciding factor in your candidacy.


Test scores fundamentally provide colleges with the roughest possible measure of your potential for academic success in college, and their predictive value usually declines over time. But they don’t tell us much about your intellectual “fire in the belly,” and that’s what our faculties want in their classrooms. That’s why your high school grades, and the rigor of the academic program in which they are achieved, are a much better long-term predictor of your potential for academic success.

So, should you pay extra dollars to one of those test preparation services that guarantee an improvement in your test scores? That depends.

If there is a wide disparity between your verbal and math scores, some specific preparation may help narrow that gap. But remember also that where your scores are to begin with should influence your decision on whether or not to pursue test preparation. It can be far easier, for example, to boost a 550 score to a 600 than it might be to boost a 730 score to a 780.

And what do Middlebury and other highly selective colleges consider to be a high or low score?

It’s not unusual for the middle 50 percent of our entering classes to have SAT scores on each of the tests from the mid-600s to mid-700s. That is to say that if your scores are in that range, they will probably have a “neutral” effect on your candidacy at the nation’s most selective colleges.

If your scores are higher than that, you may be at an advantage in the admissions process at those colleges, but by no means guaranteed of being admitted. If they are lower, you are probably at a disadvantage, but again, not necessarily out of the running.

Thankfully, selective college admissions remains an art and not a science, and since it involves people making judgments about other people, it is a process that is not easily reducible to a formula.

That’s why the more nuanced judgments that we make about applicants on the basis of their recommendations from teachers and counselors, their outside interests and their essays are what frequently help us identify the applicants who will bring the most to — and get the most from — their college educations.


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