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What Does It Really Mean to Get a Perfect Score on the SAT or ACT?

02/03/2015 11:15 am ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015
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This post was written by Celeste Barnaby, a freshman at the Wesleyan University. It was originally published on The Prospect, a student-run college admissions and high school/college lifestyles website. You can follow The Prospect on Facebook and Twitter.

Getting a perfect score on the SAT or ACT is thought to be among highest accolades a high school student can attain. According to many people, it's patent proof that a student is smart, dedicated, and primed to take on the Ivy League of his or her choosing. It's known as an accomplishment so exceptional that even Bill Gates fell 10 points shy of the magic number. A plethora of guide books, websites, and College Confidential threads are clamoring to give students advice on the right way to study in order to get a 2400 and/or 36. Simply put, it's something people care about, like, a lot.

I decided to take a look at what it means to get a perfect score, both statistically and personally, in hopes of seeing for myself how significant an honor it is, and whether it's something worth striving for. Here's what I learned.

The Numbers

It's a misconception that you have to get every question right on the SAT or ACT to get a perfect score. On the SAT, your raw score for a section is determined based on how many points you've earned-- you earn one point for each correct response, lose between half and a quarter of a point for each incorrect response, and earn zero points for each unanswered question. This raw score is then converted into a score on the 200-800 scale, with the section scores added together to arrive at your overall score. While equating these scaled scores, College Board performs some statistical analyses too complicated for me to understand to account for differences in difficulty between test editions. The ACT's scoring system is similar, save for the fact that this test does not deduct points from your raw score for incorrect answers, and that scaled section scores (ranging from 1 to 36) are averaged rather than added.

The key takeaway from this is that these tests are, in a sense, scored on a curve. One student who received a 2400 may have missed five questions, while another perfect scoring student may have missed only two, based on the designated variance in difficulty between the two test editions. So although perfect scorers aren't missing or skipping very many questions, it's incorrect to believe that a 2400 equals a 100 percent.

A commonly held notion with more validity is that perfect scores are rare and difficult to achieve. College Board reports that, of the 1,664,479 students in the class of 2012 who took the SAT, 360 got a perfect score. That's .02%. Scoring perfectly on the ACT is a bit more common: in 2013, 1,162 out of 1,799,243 total students got a 36. At .06%, however, it's still a remarkable feat. There are far more valedictorians and class presidents and varsity sports captains than perfect scorers. This accomplishment is not something that college admissions officers see very often. Still, how does getting a perfect score actually, tangibly affect students going through the admissions process? Let's take a look.

A Case Study

My friend Ben* was in his junior year of high school when he learned he had received a 36 composite score on his first ACT. The news came with some fanfare: he got a shoutout in the local newspaper and myriad congratulations from teachers and fellow students. But despite the noteworthiness of his performance, Ben's college plans remained the same. He did not change his list to add more selective schools, nor did he remove any safeties. This course of action proved wise the following spring, when college results started coming in. Ben got acceptances from a lot of colleges, but he also got some rejections and waitlists--just like the vast majority of students. He is currently in his freshman year at a college that's a great fit for him. At this point, his perfect ACT score impacts his life in absolutely no way.

Though this example does not prove anything about the behavior or credentials of perfect scoring students, it does disprove the idea that a 2400/36 gets you an automatic acceptance into any college lucky enough to read your application. As I and many others have said before, college admissions are holistic. Standardized test scores are one component of an application, along with GPA, essays, extracurriculars, and all that other good stuff. A perfect score is impressive, but it won't stop admissions officers from looking at and weighing these factors. Colleges are not looking for test-taking robots; they are looking for real, fully-formed human beings.

The Bottom Line

Getting a perfect score on SAT or ACT is certainly an awesome achievement, and something that any student should be proud of. But that doesn't mean that it's worth aiming for or putting energy into attaining. Test scores may seem paramount while you're in the in the college admissions bubble, but once that's over, you'll find that they matter only in a few specific, inconsequential circumstances (if at all). Moreover, with the growing recognition of the SAT and ACT's racial and economic bias, and with more colleges making the decision to go test-optional, these tests may soon become less important even within the realm of college admissions.

The time you spend studying the SAT could be spent developing a skill, fostering a hobby, or doing a bunch of other things that will still be relevant once you get into college. Keep that in mind before you choose to go chasing after a 2400, or 1600, or 36, or whatever number colleges start caring about next.

* = Name changed to protect identity.