What makes a score “high enough?”

If your scores are borderline, how do you decide whether it’s worth it to go all out for a school or simply let it drop?” In other words, at what point does admission become truly unrealistic?

That is of course a slippery question, especially when someone is being urged to aim high. When a school gets 30,000 applicants and accepts fewer than 10% of them, it’s easy to feel that winning admission is somehow akin to winning the lottery and that it’s always worth it to throw in an application because maybe, just maybe, you’ll be one of the lucky ones.

The problem is that it doesn’t quite work that way. College admissions may be notoriously unfair, but it is not nearly as random as it may appear from the outside. The people who get in are chosen in no small part because they fulfill a particular institutional need — be it academic, athletic, extracurricular, monetary, or social. For “unhooked” candidates, test scores tend to play a very significant role. These are the people that the committee can afford to be even choosier about. Unless they are truly accomplished in a particular area, they are the ones who can’t afford a serious weakness in their scores. Admissions officers need a way of eliminating applicants, and if an otherwise undistinguished applicant has a score or two that clearly aren’t up to par, he or she is almost certain to be rejected.

Think of it this way: Princeton has 25th-75th percentile score ranges of 690-790 (CR), 700-790 (M), and 700-780 (W). It’s a pretty safe bet that most of the people with scores below that level fulfill a significant institutional need or have a justifiable weakness in a particular area: for example, an international applicant with a 650 in CR who has never gone to an English-speaking school but who happens to be a top-notch math student (international-level awards) might have their CR score overlooked. Same for an inner-city Hispanic student who’s the first in her family to attend college.

If, on the other hand, a run-of-the-mill valedictorian from a decent suburban high school somewhere on the East Coast were to present with that same 650 in CR, they would probably be rejected pretty quickly. In other words, it’s about context. But while one score that’s 100 points below the 50th percentile can hurt a lot, three scores that are just a little on the low side might not have quite the same impact. A student who has straight As in very hard classes, an SAT breakdown of, say 730/740/720, fantastic recommendations, and an unusual interest or talent to which they’ve devoted an exceptional amount of time, is going to get looked at very seriously. Even thought the overall score, a 2190, is on a tiny bit on the low side by Princeton’s standards, it’s still high enough.

So to sum up, for unhooked applicants:

If your scores are a little below average but are counterbalanced by another element that makes your application exceptional, they will be considered high enough. If they’re average or a little below and there’s nothing particularly exciting about your application, your scores might not be the deciding factor, but it is unlikely that you’ll be accepted anyway.

If you have some scores at the mid-high end of the range and a couple well below the average and there’s nothing particularly exciting about your application, it is also pretty unlikely that you’ll get accepted at the most competitive schools. They have to weed people out somehow.

If your scores are all significantly below an institution’s average, there’s probably nothing else you can say in your application that will make a difference.

If you’ve got scores at the top of the range but nothing else, they may help a bit, but they won’t get you in on their own. Even a perfect score only raises your chances to about 50% at the most selective schools. It doesn’t guarantee anything.

That said, I don’t want to be responsible for dashing anyone’s hopes. If you don’t have sky-high scores but are nevertheless convinced that Princeton or Stanford or MIT or fill-in-the-blank super-competitive school is the perfect place for you, then by all means, go for it. But be realistic. A couple of reaches are great, but try to avoid having 10 or 15 of them. Throwing in more applications does not necessarily increase your chances if you aren’t all that competitive to begin with.