What Standardized Test Scores Do I Need to Get Into an Ivy League College?

04/06/2017 03:28 pm ET Updated Apr 14, 2017
College Coach

Or Part Two of “Who Gets Into Harvard?”

Last week, we ran the first in a multi-blog series on how to evaluate your chances of getting into an Ivy or similarly selective college. One of the takeaways was the importance of asking the right questions when trying to accurately assess the likelihood that you will get in. The first question was, “Are you the top student in your class?”

The next question to ask is, “Are your SAT/ACT scores as strong as your grades?”

Too many high school students and their parents spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about whether Ivies and similarly selective colleges will prefer the SAT or the ACT, or whether or not they must have one subject test in the sciences and one in the humanities. What really matters is great scores.

Here’s what you need to know to best evaluate your test scores: are they good? Really, really good? Not just, “better than my neighbor” or, “stronger than the best score I got on 15 practice ACTs,” but exceptionally strong.

For Ivies and similarly selective places like MIT, Caltech, and Stanford, that means a minimum composite ACT of a 34, with a 35 or 36 being, of course, even better. On the SAT and subject tests, it means shooting for a 750 or higher on both sections and on all subject tests. And on AP tests, it means primarily scores of 5.

“But those are almost perfect,” you’re thinking, “How can that be the expectation?!” I totally agree that this is frustrating. The reason it’s the expectation is because there are students getting those scores, and they’re all in these applicant pools.

Now is the point in the process when families think to themselves, “Well, I know someone who got into Yale with a 32 ACT composite, so I think I have a shot with my 31.” As I noted in my previous blogs, there are absolutely exceptions to the rules I’m laying out here. But the bad news is that very, very few students will be the exception. Do students get in with lower scores? Yes. Does the average student get in with lower scores? No.

If you are reviewing your scores and realize they’re not where they need to be, understand that the admissions office will realize this as well. They’re going to keep reading your file. It is absolutely true that there are no official cutoffs and that every file gets read all the way through—that’s what a holistic review process means. Admissions officers are going to look for something so compelling that it might make up for the lower scores, because they’re looking for reasons to admit rather than deny. In almost all cases though, they will confirm that this isn’t an application that’s going to make the cut.

So what if your test scores aren’t as good as your grades? Either work to improve them or set your sights elsewhere. (And by the way, there are many schools that will love that your scores are well above average, even if they’re not quite strong enough for the Ivy League colleges.)

In the meantime, come back next week for information on how to evaluate your extracurricular involvement the way an admissions officer at a highly selective college will.

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